At 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 28, 2002, two men in Kenya propped Russian-made SA-7 “Strela” missile launchers on their shoulders, took aim for a nearby midair Arkia Israel Airlines passenger jet and fired at its 250 passengers.
Both shots missed.
At about the same time, 15 miles away in the city of Mombasa, three suicide bombers detonated explosives outside an Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel, murdering 12 civilians, mostly Kenyans.
The attempted takedown of the Arkia jetliner in Kenya prompted El Al Israel Airlines to develop a defense system that could help its jets deflect or avoid shoulder-fired missiles, also known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADs. The system, known as SkyShield, fires a laser at incoming missiles, disrupting their flight path.
Although most MANPADs can only reach heights of up to 10,000 feet (an airliner’s cruising altitude tends to be around 30,000 feet), to strike an airliner during takeoff or landing is more a matter of timing and aim than functional capability.
According to Jane’s, a defense analysis company, the Israeli government reportedly tested SkyShield by firing live rockets at a Boeing 737 in February. At the time, both the government and Elbit (the company that produced SkyShield) said little, other than that the test proved effective.
When the Journal called El Al’s New York office last week with questions about SkyShield, a spokesperson said that the airline does not comment on any of its security procedures.
One would think that SkyShield would, at a minimum, be capable of defending against MANPADS, which have only a gradual learning curve and, most importantly, filled the black market following the fall of Moammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya in 2011.
In fact, a photograph from a September 2013 rally in Gaza shows a Hamas member hoisting a MANPAD over his shoulder. A July 23 Associated Press piece details the various theatres where MANPADs are already in the hands of Islamist rebel groups—Syria, Chad, Mali, and Sinai. In 2012, Al-Monitor reported that a shoulder-fired missile was launched at an Israeli military aircraft over the Gaza strip.
And, in recent weeks, two events have made aviation officials feel a bit more on edge. First, Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine used a Russian-made SA-11 Buk to shoot Malaysia Airlines flight 17 out of the sky, killing all 295 people onboard. Then, on July 22, a rocket fired by Hamas landed about one mile from Ben Gurion Airport, sufficiently spooking the Federal Aviation Administration and the European Aviation Safety Agency to the point where the agencies temporarily banned many flights to and from Israel.
That incident illustrates how even a remote and unlikely threat like unguided and indiscriminately fired rockets can significantly hamper Israel’s vital tourism industry.
And while the current rockets Hamas is firing pose little to no threat to civilian jetliners, and while El Al may be retrofitted to disrupt the most advanced surface-to-air (SAM) weaponry ever known to be in Hamas’s arsenal, other international airlines that fly to Israel have no defense against MANPADs.
With the West Bank only a few miles away, a MANPAD in the wrong hands could very well be used against a civilian airliner departing from or landing at Ben Gurion airport. Any successful attempt would not only shut down Israel’s skies for much longer than the FAA’s 24-hour ban—it would likely provoke a fierce Israeli response that could make its current Gaza operation look like child’s play.
An even scarier threat, though, from Israel’s perspective (or, really, from travelers’ perspectives) is what would happen if Hamas or other Palestinian terrorist factions got their hands on a system similar to the one the rebels in eastern Ukraine acquired? Is that so impossible?
If the Russian-backed rebels are incompetent enough to mistakenly shoot down a civilian airplane, how can they be trusted to not allow one of their Buk systems (which can reach targets flying at 70,000 feet) to fall into the hands of Islamists? Has Iran—which possesses advanced SAM missile technology—attempted to send its systems to Hamas or Hezbollah? If they succeeded, does anyone doubt that Israel’s enemies would either a) fire such missiles indiscriminately or b) threaten their use should Israel ever attack?
Interestingly, though, in an interview with Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the State Department and a terrorism analyst with the global intelligence firm Stratfor, it sounded as if Israel may have more to fear from the more primitive MANPADs than from the advanced technology that was required to take down MH-17, if only because tracking MANPADs is far more difficult than seeking a massive Buk system.
“Using those kind of targeting radars are huge emitters of radars and they are very, very easy to find and destroy,” Stewart said. “I think the Israelis would be able to suppress them fairly easily.”
Of course, though, if even one slipped through Israel’s intelligence and security net, Hamas, or Islamic Jihad, or Hezbollah would no doubt rejoice at being able to upgrade from its fairly primitive stock of cross-your-fingers-and-fire rocketry to weapons that can actually evade Iron Dome and cause massive destruction.