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Agence France Presse December 4, 2001

US fears Stinger missiles can be used against its own in Afghanistan

By Jean-Michel Stoullig

The Pentagon is worried that US-made Stinger missiles, so successful in downing Soviet aircraft in the 1980s, could now be aimed against US forces fighting in Afghanistan.

On Monday, the Pentagon admitted there was concern about Stinger missiles in Afghanistan as the Taliban militia was targeting US warplanes from their stronghold in Kandahar.

"Our air crews are still flying prudently, because there still are surface-to-air, man-portable weapons that are being fired into the air," said Pentagon spokesman John Stufflebeem. "I don't know the numbers of what might be a Stinger or what might be a Russian variant of that, or what might even be just a rocket- propelled grenade. But they're shooting at aircraft," he said.

Pilots of low-flying US aircraft have reported seeing surface-to-air missiles, more recently around Kandahar, since the start of the joint campaign against terrorism, Stufflebeem.

Stingers are shoulder-fired, heat-seeking, anti-aircraft missiles. The Central Intelligence Agency delivered hundreds of Stingers to Afghanistan's freedom fighters during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

They were used to destroy between 200 and 300 Soviet helicopter gunships, fighter jets and transport aircraft.

Once the Soviet occupation ended, the CIA tried to buy back the remaining Stingers left in Afghanistan without much success, International Herald Tribune reported.

Since the start of operation "Enduring Freedom" in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior Pentagon officials have warned of the threat of Stinger or similar Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles to low-flying aircraft, especially helicopters.

The initial phase of military operations, the Pentagon said, was aimed at destroying the Taliban's planes and anti-aircraft capabilities with high-altitude bombing raids that put US planes out of the reach of Afghan missiles.

But the threat from Stinger missiles, with their long, narrow engines, is still uncertain. None have hit their intended targets in years.

The number of remaining Stinger missiles in Afghanistan is also uncertain.

On October 15, Rumsfeld spoke of a "non-trivial Stinger population" in Afghanistan.

Historian Samuel Huntington put the number at between 300 and 500, part of "a substantial amount of military equipment," left behind after the war against the Soviets.

But several military analysts believe the Taliban have no more than one hundred of the shoulder-fired missiles.

Experts questioned by AFP in the first weeks after the US-led bombing in Afghanistan agreed the threat was real, but that it should not be blown out of proportion: the ageing Stingers may have run out of battery power, and few of the young Taliban militiamen know how to handle them properly.

In addition, US technology has developed countermeasures to deflect missiles by dropping decoys to mask an aircraft's heat source, said John Pike, a weapons specialist at Globalsecurity.org. "Countermeasures on US planes and helicopters to deflect or shield the heat source of the aircraft are significantly better. The Soviet helicopters were more vulnerable," Pike said.

But Michele Flournoy of the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies warned that "countermeasures are never fool proof."

"There is always the chance that someone gets lucky," she said. "Someone in Somalia (in 1993) got lucky, used a grenade launcher to shoot down a US helicopter, not exactly what it was designed for..."

Several western armed forces, including the US Army, are equipped with updated versions of the Stinger missile, which is 1.5 meters (five feet) in length, weighs 5.7 to 15.6 kilograms (12.5 to 34 pounds) and can hit a target at a maximum altitude of 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) and distance of eight kilometers (five miles).

2001 Agence France Presse