Reports that the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) may have surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) raise the question of how these weapons could transform Colombia‘s conflict and why, having long sought such weapons, the guerrilla group has never taken down an aircraft.
On July 2, El Colombiano reported that the Ecuadorean armed forces had discovered a SAM during a routine patrol near the border with Colombia. Earlier this year, remarks by US Southern Command’s General John Kelley sparked renewed speculation about the weapons, following years of suggestions that the FARC has obtained or attempted to acquire shoulder-launched SAMs, known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).
But if the FARC has been trying to get their hands on these weapons for many years, why is there no record of a successful deployment by the rebels? Have national and international efforts to prevent them from obtaining SAMs proven successful? Has the group opted to stick to more tried and true methods until it acquires enough missiles to conduct a sustained assault? Or, if the group does possess these weapons, or did in the past, are the ground conditions under which the FARC is currently operating unfavorable for their successful use?
What are SAMs/MANPADS?
In basic terms, MANPADS are shoulder-launched guided missiles which can be used against low-flying aircraft, consisting of a cylindrical tube which holds the projectile, a “gripstock” launching mechanism, a battery, and a battery coolant unit (BCU). Once the missile is fired, the tube can be thrown away. Most MANPADS are around 5 feet long and weigh 30 to 40 pounds. Early models go for several thousand dollars on the black market, while more modern versions can cost up to $30,000.
There are three types of MANPADS: command line-of-sight, laser guided, and infrared (IR) seekers. The most common MANPADS, and the ones typically associated with the FARC, are the IR seekers, which “hone in on the heat of an aircraft’s engine.” These are the easiest to use and the most widely circulated of these kinds of weapons, particularly among non-state groups.
The most common models of IR seeker MANPADS are the Russian Strela series, Russian Igla series, and the American FIM-92 Stinger.
Of the aforementioned weapons, the Strela-2 (SA-7) is the least sophisticated but most widely proliferated. The missile can be used to target aircraft flying at an altitude of between 50 and 1,500 meters, although the SA-7a model must be launched from behind its target in order to effectively track the energy emission. The payload is somewhat small (a 1.17 kilogram warhead), and the IR seeker can be fooled by “relatively simple countermeasures such as flares.” The slightly more advanced SA-7b model has a range of 4,200 meters, can engage targets such as transport planes and helicopters head on, and is capable of hitting targets at an altitude of up to 2,300 meters.According to the US State Department, SA-7b missiles are the MANPADS “most commonly held by terrorist groups.”
The Strela-3 (SA-14) features a 1.8 kilogram warhead, a greater altitudinal range (30 to 3,000 meters), and a launching mechanism that helps prevent wasted shots. Its guidance system allows users to engage jet aircraft head on, and its improved IR seekers reduce the effectiveness of flares as countermeasures.
The Igla-1 (SA-16) and Igla (SA-18) have more lethal payloads (with the choice of proximity or impact fuses), and a more sophisticated IR seeker designed to overcome countermeasures. They can engage targets at a range of 5.2 kilometers and an altitude between 10 and 3,500 meters.
American Stinger missiles (FIM-92A/B/C/D) are similar to the Igla, but much faster. The United States’ provision of Stinger missiles to the Afghan mujahideen in the late 1980s acted as a force multiplier and arguably led to the turning point in their struggle against the Soviet Union’s invasion (later called “the Stinger effect“). In total, the Afghan fighters brought down nearly 270 aircraft in three years.
According to the Small Arms Survey, there are up to 750,000 MANPADS in global circulation today. MANPADS have a shelf-life of up to twenty years, although storage conditions affect how long they last. Preventing the proliferation of MANPADS and destroying illicit weapons has become more of a priority for the United States and other western governments since a failed al-Qaeda attack used them on a civilian airliner in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002 (al-Qaeda documents have since been discovered in Mali offering detailed instructions on how to use MANPADS and cautioning about the weapons’ shortcomings).
FARC and MANPADS
Since the launch of the Uribe government’s Democratic Security Policy, aerial bombardments by the Colombian military have kept the FARC on the run, forcing them to abandon large camps and move in smaller groups. As many analysts have noted, a successful FARC challenge to the government’s air superiority could potentially be a game changer.
Douglas Farah, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, characterized the FARC’s failure to successfully acquire and use MANPADS as a mystery. “It seems like, with the ongoing peace talks, and the FARC currently in a position of weakness, shooting down a plane or helicopter would enable the group to negotiate from a position of strength,” said Farah.
One thing that Farah believes is certain, however, is that if the FARC had functional MANPADS, they would use them. An anti-aircraft campaign would “at the very least buy the guerrillas some time to regroup” and possibly “force the army and the police to rethink their entire airborne strategy,” Farah explained. To avoid possible MANPADS attacks, military helicopters would be forced to fly extremely low, which is more dangerous and uses more fuel.
The first question is whether the FARC actually possesses usable MANPADS. Colombian defense officials disputed General Kelley’s claim, although they did say that two years ago authorities discovered two used and discarded “frankly old, frankly useless” SA-7 missiles. However, a report by Small Arms Survey suggests that as of September 2012, the FARC held both SA-7 and SA-14 missiles, although it did not specify as to the quantity or working conditions of the weapons. In December 2012, video surfaced of a failed attempt by the FARC to fire an SA-7 at a Colombian helicopter. It is unclear from the video whether the missile was a dud or whether the guerrilla firing the weapon failed to properly track his target.
Whether or not they have actually managed to obtain MANPADS, there are multiple examples of the FARC’s intention to do so. Colombian authorities have expressed concern that the guerrillas could obtain MANPADS via Venezuelan contacts, either from the Venezuelan army (which has purchased a significant quantity of SA-24s) or from the black market.E-mails recovered from Raul Reyes’ computer revealed that in 2000, the slain guerrilla commander sent Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi an e-mail identifying SAMs as a top priority for the group. Another e-mail discovered on the computer, dated January 18, 2006, reveals the FARC’s attempts to obtain SAMs from Turkish Communist Party (TKP) guerrillas.
The second and more important question is why, if they do possess them or have had them in the past, the FARC has so far failed to execute a successful attack using MANPADS. There are several possible explanations.
First, the FARC may have “missed its window” to acquire a significant number of MANPADS and to receive training from sympathetic overseas actors that would allow them to use these weapon to their maximum potential. It is unclear why in the past the FARC was unable to acquire the weapons either from Gaddafi or from contacts in Venezuela. This is not to suggest that a new window will not open up, but for now, with FARC leaders constantly on the move to avoid capture or death, it may be more difficult now for them to make the international connections that could supply a significant number of more sophisticated MANPADS than it was a decade ago.
As Farah noted, it is also possible that even if the FARC currently has a small number of missiles, they may want to wait until they are able to launch a sustained campaign, rather than just bringing down one aircraft.
Second, there is a critical difference between merely firing this kind of weapon and successfully deploying it against a targeted aircraft, particularly a military aircraft which may employ countermeasures. The difference between these two outcomes stems from both user training and the operational environment in which the weapon is being used.
Many media outlets often report that MANPADS are easy to use, and in some senses this is true. To fire the weapon, all the user has to do is visually acquire and track the target, then pull the trigger to activate the automatic target lock and launch system. While using MANPADS does not require extensive training (as illustrated by the mujahideen’s success with them), successfully taking down an aircraft is a little more complicated than just “pointing and shooting.”
The conditions under which the FARC is currently operating are not particularly conducive to proper transportation, storage, and maintenance of the hardware. MANPADS are relatively sensitive instruments and can be expensive and difficult to maintain, unlike weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). They must be kept dry, and must be stored and maintained properly in order to remain effective. The batteries powering the weapons are not reusable: once turned on, there is a limited time to fire the missile before it needs a new BCU. MANPADS batteries and BCUs do not have a particularly long shelf-life. Even if they have obtained MANPADS in the past, it is possible that the FARC failed to keep them in working condition.
Similarly, the FARC’s current operational environment may make the successful deployment of MANPADS against Colombian military aircraft somewhat challenging, particularly if those operating the weapons lack training. Members of the United States armed forces familiar with these weapons note that it would be difficult if not impossible to successfully deploy one of these missiles in the jungle, particularly given that the FARC are often unable to emerge out into the open due to the Colombian army’s superior air power. Unlike the Afghan mujahedeen operating in mountainous or desert terrain, the FARC’s operational environment is often characterized by dense jungle and frequent enemy air pressure.
With good intelligence on the guerrillas’ positions, the government can conduct aerial bombardment through jungle foliage. The guerrillas, on the other hand, cannot shoot MANPADS up out of their jungle hideouts; overhead cover would prevent guerrillas from engaging and tracking the target. One of the Afghan insurgency’s most successful tactics was helicopter ambushes, in which two or three insurgents, each armed with MANPADS, would launch simultaneous attacks on a helicopter. To take down an aircraft, the FARC would need either to lure a helicopter into an ambush, or track a fixed wing aircraft in an open area (the latter of which could potentially make guerrillas vulnerable to enemy fire).
None of this is to suggest that the FARC will never acquire a greater number of potentially more sophisticated weapons, or that they will never successfully take down a military aircraft. As noted above, a MANPADS attack or campaign could force the government to alter its air strategy. Furthermore, a downed military helicopter would also have a powerful symbolic significance and would affect popular perception of the FARC’s power, particularly if the guerrillas released video of the attack.