Successful Missile Attack
on an A300 Jet Airliner
The AirSafe Journal
Issue vol. 1 no. 18 November 2003
Todd Curtis, PhD
For the first time in over five years, an airliner was successfully hit and damaged by a portable surface to air missile. The aircraft, a DHL A300, had just departed from Baghdad on a cargo flight to Bahrain on 22 November 2003 when it was reportedly hit by a SAM-7 surface to air missile. The left wing caught fire following the hit, forcing the crew to return to the airport for a successful emergency landing.
While no one was injured by the attack, it illustrates that the danger to commercial airliners posed by surface to air missiles is real.
Whether this recent attack on this cargo aircraft, as well as an attack on a passenger aircraft last year in Kenya, represents a near term danger to commercial aircraft elsewhere in the world remains to be seen.
DHL suspended operations in Baghdad after the event.
Royal Jordanian, which is currently the only commercial passenger carrier flying from the Baghdad airport, also suspended its flights.
History of Portable Missile Attacks on Airliners
Attacks using his kind of weapon, a portable anti-aircraft missile that can be fired by a single person, has been attempted several times in the last 25 years. According to a 3 November 2003 report from the Congressional Research Service (CRS), there were five events during this period where large civil jet transports were fired upon by portable surface to air missiles. Of those five airliners, four were struck and two of those four crashed and killed everyone on board. According to early reports, the weapon used in the most recent attack was either an SA-7 or an SA-14. The CRS claims that the SA-7 is used by over a dozen non-state groups such as FARC in Colombia and Hizbullah in Lebanon and that the SA-14 is used by non-state groups in Afghanistan and in at least two other countries.
Interest in this threat increased in the U.S. last year after two missiles were fired at a 757 departing from Mombassa, Kenya. Although the missiles did not strike the aircraft, the event led to proposals to install anti-missile systems on almost 6,000 U.S. airliners. At present, there is no approved plan to install such devices on U.S. airliners.
Airline Design and Portable Missiles
The large jet airliners that fly most of the world's passengers are not specifically designed to survive damage that may be caused by small surface to air missiles. However, the requirements that are in place make it relatively unlikely that a single missile strike will bring down an airliner. In the recent event in Iraq, the aircraft was damaged and there was a fire visible on the left wing outboard of the engine. The crew of the aircraft was able to maintain control and return safely to the airport. In general, large jet airliners are designed to continue flying after sustaining major damage or major system malfunction due to threats as varied as bird strikes, engine fires, and uncontained engine failures. While the effects of a small warhead such as that in an SA-7 may cause severe damage, it may not necessarily lead to a loss of aircraft control or to a catastrophic in-flight breakup.
What This Attack Means for Airline Passengers
It is too early to tell whether this recent attack is an isolated event or whether it represents an immediate threat outside of Iraq. One likely outcome of this attack is that any group or individual that is considering a similar attack will learn from this event and adjust their tactics to achieve a different outcome. Unfortunately, there is little that can be done in the short term to reduce the risk to passengers. Since the threat would likely be launched from outside an airport, increasing passenger or cargo screening will have no effect. While there are technologies and security procedures that can be employed to reduce this threat, it is unlikely that any comprehensive set of technologies or procedures can be put into place within the next few months.
Damage Photos - Photo 1, Photo 2, Photo 3
Missile Attack on a 757 on 28 November 2002
Congressional Research Service Report on Missile Threats
SA-7 Missile Description from GlobalSecurity.org
SA-7 Missile Description from the Federation of American Scientists
SA-14 Missile Description from the Federation of American Scientists
Reliable Complex Systems and AirSafe.com Joint Press Release
http://airsafe.com/journal/v1num18.htm -- Revised: 24 May 2015