Sunday, August 17, 2003

The guy who runs the blog Capitalist Lion is patting himself on the back: He thinks he's debunked what he sees as blame-America-firstism in The New York Times -- specifically, a sentence in this Times article:

Intelligence agencies say Al Qaeda already has dozens of missiles, many of them American-made Stingers left over from the war in Afghanistan in the 1980's when the United States supplied them to Afghan guerrillas seeking to oust Soviet troops from their country.

Mr. Lion plays what he thinks is a trump card:

Aside from the moral right or wrong of suppling the mujahideen with Stingers so they could stand something resembling a fighting chance against Soviet Hind helicopters, there's a neat little fact that tends to escape most of the people who jump on the We gave them weapons! bandwagon.


Yes, and not the kind that one picks up at the local 7-11. See, the Hughes/Raytheon's Stinger has fairly sophisticated targeting electronics built into the launcher, which are required to lock on to a target and fire the missile. It's a spiffy kind of chemical battery which has a finite life of about ten years. The missile itself also has a small thermal battery inside it, with roughly the same lifetime.

Without either battery providing the needed power, the tracking electronics don't turn on, the gyros don't spin up, and you have what amounts to a very expensive jack handle.

And finally, Stingers use a three-stage solid fuel rocket motor. It also has a finite life expectancy, and the older they get, the easier it is for the fuel to crack and crumble when the missiles are moved. Know what happens if you pull the trigger on one of those babies when it's too old? Yep. Time to play "It's raining Men" and get out the hefty bags.

Sounds reassuring. Too bad the folks at a Web site run by a little outfit called Jane's -- you know, the folks who've been trusted experts on military matters for a gazillion years -- beg to differ. Here's what the Jane's people say in an article about MANPADs (manportable surface-to-air missiles), including the Stinger:

One popular misconception is that these missiles become unusable after several years due to battery or other systems failures and are therefore useless after a period of time. While it is true that all MANPAD batteries have a finite shelf life, these can be replaced with commercially purchased batteries available on the open market and technically proficient terrorist groups might also be able to construct hybrid batteries to replace used ones.

Other concerns include deterioration of missile propellants and seeker coolant, and general storage issues. While these concerns merit attention, the commonly held assumption that these weapons have short shelf lives is erroneous. Most missiles are hermetically sealed in launchers designed for rough handling by soldiers in the field. Temperature extremes are also factored into the design of these weapons, reducing the threat of environmental degradation.

Clearly, the shelf life of MANPADs is, in large part, dependent on the conditions in which the weapon is stored. However, under ideal (factory specified) conditions, some versions of these weapons can remain operational for 22 years or more.

Mr. Lion also says this:

And finally, we have to look at the Stinger's range. It's about 10,000 feet, maximum. This would limit it to small prop aircraft, helicopters, or jet aircraft as they are taking off or landing. One couldn't pull one out of uncle Bob's pickup truck in the middle of an Iowa corn field and pick off a jumbo at 35,000 feet. It's just not going to happen.

An Iowa cornfield? Maybe not. But people can get way too close to the planes in certain neighborhoods in this country, especially in the East. I know because I grew up in one of those neighborhoods, near a major metropolitan airport. Trust me -- the planes fly low near residential streets. We'd be fools if we shrugged off the risk.

UPDATE: I posted some of what I've written here in Mr. Lion's comments box. He's responded by updating the post -- and his contention is that he's right and Jane's is wrong. Now, this isn't my area of expertise, but the last time I looked, Jane's was the gold standard for this sort of information. So there it stands.

I find it interesting that, in the course of arguing that unauthorized use of old Stingers is highly unlikely, Mr. Lion repeatedly invokes images of splattered terrorists -- he seems to think that fear of sudden death should be enough of a deterrent to prevent terrorists from learning how to jury-rig an outdated MANPAD. I'd like to point out that fear of going splat wasn't much of a deterrent to nineteen terrorists a couple of Septembers ago.

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