TCS Daily


Think the Unthinkable

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - August 14, 2003 12:00 AM

The impossible can only be overborne by the unprecedented.

-- Sir Ian Hamilton, Gallipoli Diary, 1920

The thing was done in a minute. It was September dusk and traffic was relatively light on the Grand Central Parkway as the black Honda Accord pulled over to the berm beside Planeview Park, at the end of LaGuardia Airport. As usual, a jetliner was in its final seconds before touching down on the runway. The whine of its engines could be heard above the rush of passing trucks and taxis.

The sunroof on the Honda slid open. A swarthy man in a black T-shirt popped suddenly from the opening, pulling a strange looking object out with him. It was an RPG-7, a Russian-made rocket propelled grenade launcher. Only a practiced eye could have noticed that it had been slightly modified. The cone-shaped warhead was slightly larger than usual; the launcher barrel was slightly longer, and the horn-shaped exhaust pipe curved upward.

The man in the T-shirt knew he had only an instant. All the months of training, all the computer game simulations, all the video-tapes of jetliners landing at LaGuardia had brought him to this few seconds. He "led" the huge airliner like a skeet shooter and pulled the trigger. Even though the curved pipe directed the back blast largely upward, it still rocked the Honda. A taxi driver passing by with his window open felt a rush of heat that almost made him lose control of his car.

The warhead exploded just behind the front exit door of the airliner. The Honda scorched the pavement as it rocketed away from the scene. Up ahead of it, a puzzled truck driver was still trying to process the image he had just seen as he passed the parked Honda - the blur of a man's torso on the roof of the car, a blast of fire and smoke. "Jeez! What was that? Did that car blow up?" He didn't realize that the car streaking past him on the right was the same Honda he had just seen.

But now his attention was drawn off to his right. He heard the loud, rolling explosion and saw the smoke rising above LaGuardia, where the crippled airliner had just crash-landed.

Implausible? A little purple? The stuff of made-for-TV movies, you might say. Well, let's just ponder a few things we might ordinarily be reluctant to discuss for fear of putting the wrong ideas in the minds of the wrong people. And to guide our thinking a bit, think "low tech."

We all know by now about the arrest in New Jersey Tuesday of Hemant Lakhani, a British arms dealer who "allegedly" sold a shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile to an undercover FBI agent posing as a terrorist. So the "shooting at civilian airliners" thing is out of the bag.

Suddenly we are hearing about MANPADS. That's the deadly new acronym you'll be getting to know. It stands for "man portable air defense systems." These are shoulder-fired missiles, usually with heat-seeking warheads that home in on a plane's hot jet engines.

They are small. Some could fit in a golf bag. They usually weigh far less than a hundred pounds and many weigh just around 40 for missile and launcher combined.

They come in several varieties. The Soviets cranked them out in huge numbers beginning in the 1960s and they are still being made in Russia, China, France and Britain. There are well over half a million sitting in crates all over the world in various states of repair and readiness.

Probably the best known to Americans (and most effective in the opinion of experts) is the U.S.-made Stinger, which was used to such deadly and successful effect by Afghan freedom fighters against the Soviets. It could hit aircraft up to five miles away and could reach altitudes of 10,000 feet.

Another well-known one is the Russian-made SA-7 Strela. It has a shorter range - a little over 3 miles. Terrorists in Kenya fired a pair of them at an Israeli jet liner as it was taking off from the Mombasa airport last November. Both missiles missed. The Strela has been around a long time. Like many early heat-seekers, it must generally be fired after a plane has passed so it can get a good heat signature from the jet engine exhaust. It uses its 1000-mile-per-hour speed to catch up to the target.

A more sophisticated Russian MANPAD is the SA-18 Igla, which has a more advanced guidance and targeting system and can even discriminate to some extent against traditional countermeasures (these are usually decoy flares ejected from the target plane to attract the missile's heat seeker). Some reports indicate the missile sold to the FBI in this week's sting is an Igla.

As far as is known, no American airliner has ever been attacked by a MANPAD, but authorities are justifiably worried about the possibility. Last year federal security officials surveyed 82 of the nation's largest airports, trying to assess their vulnerability to surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks.

As a result of that survey, increased surveillance has been instituted at a number of airports. Those near water, such as Boston's Logan, Washington, D.C.'s Reagan and both LaGuardia and Kennedy, in New York, have involved increased Coast Guard patrol activity.

Given the relatively long range of MANPADS it is easy to see what a formidable task it would be to effectively guard the nation's airport perimeters against weapons with ranges figured in miles. But it is useful to think about what mayhem might be wrought at closer range with an RPG. We discussed these as a guerrilla weapon of choice some months ago (see The Mighty RPG).

Anyone familiar with Planeview Park, near LaGuardia, or the park at Gravelly Point boat launch area at the northern end of the Ronald Reagan airport runway in Washington, D.C., knows how close you can get to an airliner in the critical 15 or 20 seconds as it is landing or taking off. The RPG may seem a rough and lowly weapon when compared with a shoulder-fired SAM with its greater range and relatively sophisticated guidance system.

But in skilled and determined hands - the hands, say, of a fanatic ready to sacrifice his life if necessary -- an RPG, which normally has a range between 330 and 550 yards, just might score a hit on an airliner passing low overhead. If it were taking off, its fuel tanks full, it would be particularly vulnerable.

You could easily hide an RPG in a pick-up truck toolbox, under a blanket in a minivan, or -- well just think about it. It's also possible to juice up an RPG, increase its range and speed with a little more solid rocket fuel, and put a higher-explosive charge in the warhead.

I hope the experts pick a lot of holes in the scenario I sucked out of my thumb at the beginning of this piece. I really do. I hope the security at some of these close-to-the-airport venues is more covert and complete than my unpracticed eye can discern.

But most of all, I hope the experts are thinking the unthinkable, the implausible, the preposterous. You know, like the idea that three young fishermen could walk onto the grounds of Kennedy Airport undetected and wander about a mile until they came to a security building. It happened last Sunday.

An embarrassed New York Port Authority spokesman said, "The fact that they were able to do this is of great concern to us." Believe me, pal, it's of great concern to us, too.

We are in a war, a long and ugly war with a fanatic and unpredictable enemy. He has a proclivity for the lowliest weapons -- whether it's a shoe bomb, a truckload of fertilizer, or an RPG. And he has a capacity for surprise as infinite as the multiplicity of targets which our infrastructure, our freedoms and our way of life provide. We must constantly remember, as that great "teacher of generals" B.H. Liddell Hart, pointed out in his book Defense of the West, back in 1950, "War is the realm of the unexpected."

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