Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), otherwise known as shoulder fired heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles, have become prevalent among pro-Russian forces fighting in Ukraine, and their results have been grimly realized over the last few weeks of fighting.
A Ukrainian AN-30 twin-turboprop surveillance aircraft was supposedly on a reconnaissance and intelligence collecting mission high over Slavyansk when it was engaged by a shoulder-fired SAM. The missile detonated near the aircraft's right engine, setting it aflame. Luckily the crew had time to bail out of the aircraft before it struck the ground and blew up.
There have been a rash of other successful anti-aircraft attacks by pro-Russian forces on Ukrainian aircraft recently, with at least three helicopters brought down so far, including an Mi-8 with over a dozen Ukrainian troops on-board. Additionally, pro-Russian forces claim to have shot down many other aircraft, including the hardy Su-25 Frogfoot.
With the MANPADS threat blossoming in Ukraine, Ukrainian military aircraft are actively employing infrared countermeasures (see videos below) whenever they are flying in a high-threat area and within the performance envelope of most MANPADS (under about 12k feet). Still, many aircraft in Ukraine's geriatric air force do not have "expendables" (flares) capability, and none of them carry enough of flares to constantly be punching them out. Without high-tech missile launch detection systems flare release depends on visually seeing a MANPADS launch and evading it using maneuvering and countermeasures.
In other words, if you don't see it coming you probably don't know it's coming, and unless you are operating at a very low altitude, you are probably not releasing countermeasures preemptively. For the doomed AN-30 loitering high above Slavyansk, even if it did have flares on-board witch it probably did not, the crew most likely did not see the missile's launch or its rapid ascent.
Even simplistic early generation Russian-built MANPADS require some training to use successfully, and they are not exactly available at your local Ukrainian sporting goods store, although they have appeared in the hands of pro-Russian forces at an alarming rate in recent weeks. Twitter users have displayed pictures of pro-Russian fighters toting Russian built Strela, Igla and even Polish built Grom MANPADS, along with videos of captured militants that depicts the missiles in their possession among other weapons and gadgetry.
First hand accounts of separatists carrying or employing MANPADS seem to support the hypothesis that those who have such weaponry are Russian Special Forces operatives, or at least elite and well trained pro-Russian militia, as these same men usually have other high-end weapons and gear. All this begs the question- has the Kremlin and/or Russia's clandestine services taken a page out of their own defeat in Afghanistan and applied it to their increasingly bloody involvement in Ukraine?
Once the CIA provided the Afghan Mujaheddin with FIM-92 "Stinger" MANPADS, and trained them how to properly use them, Russia's occupation of that country became much more bloody, and for many the introduction of MANPADS into the conflict signaled a turning point in that war. In 1988, after a decade of fighting, an economically smashed Soviet Russia vacated Afghanistan in full.
Such a capability, if it were widely distributed over the Ukrainian battlefield, could neuter Ukraine's air power advantage over pro-Russian forces, all without Russia having to fly a single aircraft into Ukrainian territory. Although this would not result in traditional air supremacy, such a tactic would level the playing field for separatists who are currently fighting a pseudo guerrilla war against Ukrainian ground and air assets in the Eastern and Southern parts of that country.
The flip side to Russia fielding these weapons to pro-Russian factions, or even to its own operatives in Ukraine, is that they could easily wind up in the hands of terrorists who would love to use such weapons against western flagged Airliners.
If these weapons are indeed proliferating to less trained and less organized fighting forces in Ukraine, they could represent a large payday for someone looking to make a quick buck on the situation. Even though these weapons have spread throughout the Middle East and Northern Africa since the fall of Qaddafi and the ongoing destabilization in Syria, one can only imagine that such a device would sell for big bucks on the Eastern European black arms market.
If MANPADS were to be used against a western airliner, as was attempted in Mombasa in 2002, and multiple times in Iraq (see video below), and that missile and/or its launcher were traced back to the Ukrainian conflict, it could greatly erode the already poor relations between NATO and Russia. So as we see these high-terror potential weapons being used or being toted around in Ukraine, we must remember that each one represents a potential match that could light off a geopolitical powder keg in the region and around the world.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com