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The San Francisco Chronicle November 4, 2001

Stinger missiles could return to haunt U.S. forces

By Keay Davidson

In a classic case of technological boomerang, American forces in Afghanistan are threatened by a weapon the United States gave Afghan rebels two decades ago: the Stinger missile.

The 5-foot, 35-pound Stinger is the Little Engine that Could of Cold War weaponry, a shoulder-fired rocket with a heat-sensing infrared (IR) "eye." Using Stingers supplied by the CIA, the Afghan mujahedeen of the 1980s shot down helicopters of a different army, that of the Soviet Union.

"They still have some Stinger missiles on the ground," even after the American planes bombed their airfields and weapons depots, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said last week of the Taliban fighters who are in charge of Afghanistan. The Afghans' Stingers may sound like bad news for American troops, especially the "special operations" teams, such as Green Berets and Rangers, who rely heavily on helicopters for fast in-and-out strikes.

However, since the early 1980s, American military helicopters have added or enhanced many anti-missile features. Hence, Stingers may be less dangerous to American forces in 2001 than they were to the Soviets in the 1980s, some say.

Asked to rate the Stinger threat, John Pike, head of the think tank GlobalSecurity.org, replied: "On a scale of 1 to 10? Maybe 3 or 4."

In the Afghan skies, among the leading types of helicopters are AH-64 Apaches and Black Hawks, both aerial killing machines armed with the latest in rockets, machine guns and cannons. By contrast, the Afghans' Stingers -- originally built by General Dynamics and Raytheon -- are now relatively old-fashioned military technology.

According largely to interviews with confidential sources who declined to be identified, modern U.S. military helicopters include innovations such as:

-- Fast-blinking strobe lights, similar to those in nightclubs and discos. The lights confuse the Stinger's eye and throw the missile off course. It's called "IR jamming." The technique is a more high-tech version of the traditional way to distract a missile's infrared eye: Throw a hot flare out of the aircraft.

Likewise, some helicopters are equipped with lasers so bright that they blind and confuse missiles. The technique has been compared to blinding someone by poking him in the eye.

-- "IR-attenuating" paint that dims the helicopter body's infrared signature.

-- Spreading crucial helicopter components around the vehicle, plus installing backup copies of them. That way, the chopper is less likely to be destroyed by a single well-aimed Stinger.

-- "Ballistic hardening," or placement of tougher, lightweight armor around the helicopter body. A hardened chopper is less likely to be penetrated by a missile.

-- Engine cooling methods that dim the thermal "signature" of the helicopter. One trick involves radiating engine heat via a corrugated surface. Being three-dimensional, the corrugated surface covers a wider area and thus gives off less heat in a single point. That makes the IR signature weaker. Another method involves cooling the engine by pumping cool outside air over it.

According to popular lore, the Stingers were decisive in the Afghan rebels' victory over the Soviets in the 1980s. Historians agree the Stingers were an important factor in Afghan victory, but not the only one. Also important were geographical factors such as the rugged mountains, the difficult climate, and the Soviets' vulnerability to other mujahedeen fighting tactics.

In fact, "it would be a vast exaggeration to suggest that the (Stingers alone drove the) Soviets out of Afghanistan," Pike said. "The mujahedeen had a lot of different weapons that they attacked the Soviets with, and the Stingers were one of them -- but far from the only one." For example, Soviet armored personnel carriers proved vulnerable to attack because, despite their name, they weren't adequately armored.

In the 1990s, the CIA started a buyback program to recover the Stingers originally given to Afghanistan. The project was a dud: It reportedly recovered only 70 Stingers, while making them more attractive to arms smugglers by driving up the missiles' price.

"We don't have a perfectly clear idea of how many (the Afghans) have," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said late last month. "We have a pretty good estimate, and we've said in the past that it's been in the low hundreds, 200 to 300. Whether or not they've been fired, I do not know."


Copyright 2001 The Chronicle Publishing Co.