Lost amidst the intensive reporting on, active discussions about and reactions by the various actors to the downing of flight MH17 is the fact that a line has been crossed. No, not another red line. Rather, one far more dangerous for the civilized world. For the first time, insurgents have had access to and employed an advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Not only did the rebels acquire such a capability, but the evidence shows that they were given training on how to use it by the Russian military and were under Russian command and control at the time of the shoot-down. The fact that this was the result of Moscow’s strategic plan to destabilize Ukraine by providing its surrogates with a wealth of military equipment including tanks, artillery and surface-to-surface rocket launchers and the training to use them, only makes the crossing of the line more serious.
It should not come as a total surprise that non-state actors have gained access to advanced weapons systems. This has been the trend for some thirty years. Back in the 1980s, the CIA gave the Afghan Mujahideen man-portable SAMs, U.S.-made Stinger missiles, which completely changed the military balance in their fight with the Soviet Union. Hezbollah and Hamas have massive rocket arsenals, the most advanced of which have been provided by states such as Iran. Hezbollah also has anti-ship cruise missiles and even Iranian-manufactured drones. In recent weeks, two such drones apparently operated by Hamas were shot down over Gaza.
For a time, many nations, including the United States, were loath to provide their client groups even with man-portable SAMs because of the concern that they could fall into the hands of terrorists. At least man-portable SAMs had limited range, altitude and warhead weight. It would be difficult for one of these to bring down a wide-body jet.
What has changed, the new line that has been crossed, is that insurgents and terrorist groups now have access to advanced, high-altitude and long-range SAM systems and the training to employ them. These systems are mobile, making them difficult to detect and track and relatively easy to hide. They have sophisticated radars for acquiring and tracking airborne targets, long-range missiles that are fast, with warheads large enough to down aircraft of any size and even counter countermeasures. The Russian insurgents have been able to shoot down a number of Ukrainian military aircraft, including Su-25s, the Soviet-designed version of the U.S. A-10. The presence of even a couple of SA-11 missile systems have effectively rendered eastern Ukraine a no-fly zone.
Unfortunately, the Ukrainian “separatists” may not be the only ones to have been allowed, even encouraged, to cross this line. Israeli sources claim that after the 2006 war, Hezbollah acquired/was given a number of SA-8 Gecko SAMs, almost certainly from Syria. This same system is reported to have fallen into the hands of Syrian rebels. It is also believed that Moscow sold Syria a number of SA-11 systems to complement its dense array of Russian-provided SAMs.
Unfortunately, the SA-8 and 11 are not the only advanced, mobile SAM systems that could soon appear in the arsenals of a rogue regime or insurgent group near you. There is the somewhat dated SA-10 which the U.S. has been trying to prevent Russia from selling to Iran (so far successfully). Even more capable is the SA-12 which can employ three different missile systems, track and engage multiple targets simultaneously, and even defend against ballistic and cruise missiles. With advanced SAM systems such as these and the training to use them, the sky is no limit to the danger that non-state actors could pose.
U.S. intelligence officials and airpower experts have been warning for some time about the serious, negative consequences for American power projection, deterrence and warfighting strategies of the proliferation of advanced air defenses. Today, when they are being candid, Air Force and Navy leaders will admit that in the presence of advanced, integrated air defenses, they can no longer guarantee the kind of air dominance the U.S. military has come to enjoy over the past several decades. Even against integrated air defenses based on older systems, such as those deployed by nations such as Syria, the U.S. would require an extensive roll back campaign in order to make the skies relatively safe for strikes on other targets. Advanced SAMs in the hands of insurgents and terrorists could undermine the U.S. asymmetric advantage in airpower.
No wonder the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and nearly a dozen allies, including Israel, are so intent on acquiring the F-35. They see the handwriting on the wall: without advanced stealth aircraft their air forces could be driven from the skies and not just by hostile nations. There is only one option, the F-35. Together with sophisticated electronic warfare systems and new, advanced weapons, the F-35 will be able to hunt down and defeat the new SAM threat. This will clear the way for the rest of the force to dominate the skies.
Find Archived Articles: