The SA-7 Missile Threat

Experts fear SA-7 missile poses threat to airliners
Cheap, easy to use, it is a terrorist's weapon of choice
Isabel Vincent
National Post

Friday, November 29, 2002
CREDIT: The Associated Press

The anti-aircraft missiles used in yesterday's thwarted attempt to down an Israeli airliner in Kenya have long been a favourite weapon among terrorist groups because they are cheap, easy to use and can hit a target nearly 4,000 metres in the air.

The Strela-2M -- codenamed the SA-7 Grail by NATO -- is the Russian-manufactured version of the U.S. "Stinger" missile, which was supplied by the CIA to mujahedeen warriors fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Experts say the SA-7, which is a shoulder-held heat-seeking missile, can easily be used against unprotected airliners during takeoff and landing. The weapon, also manufactured in China, Pakistan, and Egypt, works by locking on to the heat generated by an aircraft's engines, and is currently a weapon of choice among terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and Chechen rebels.

The SA-7, which can be fired by one person but it is considered more effective when handled by two, has historically proven most useful against helicopters and other low-flying military aircraft. First built in the late 1960s, SA-7s were used against U.S. helicopters in the Vietnam conflict until crews found a way to vent the exhaust so the missile would not attach itself to the heat source.

The SA-7s were also used by Arab states during the Yom Kippur war against Israeli Skyhawks. Although SA-7s are limited in their ability to inflict heavy damage on a heavy-frame airplane unless they score a direct hit, they are effective when used in the anticipated path of an attacking jet aircraft, forcing the pilot to abandon the attack run and fly to higher altitudes. Military experts say the use of the weapon during the Yom Kippur war thwarted numerous Israeli air strikes.

Earlier this year Saudia Arabian authorities said they had arrested members of a terrorist network that had used an SA-7 to try and knock down U.S. military aircraft at the Prince Sultan airbase outside Riyadh.

Eleven Saudis, a Sudanese and an Iraqi man were arrested after a scorched and empty launcher was found near the base.

As with the Saudis, yesterday's attack missed its target, a fact that puzzled experts. The two missiles appear to have been fired from the optimum position -- behind the airliner and into its two red-hot engine exhausts. The missiles also appear to have been operating within their maximum range of 3,600 metres and altitude of 2,300 metres.

There have been rumours for some time that Israeli airliners are equipped with missile detectors and counter-measures such as high-energy flash guns to frustrate missile attacks, but there was little evidence of any such devices being used yesterday.

Nonetheless, authorities fear that because of its portability and range, the SA-7 may begin to pose a serious threat to commercial airlines. To use the weapon in a potential attack against an airliner, a terrorist can be more than a kilometre from the airport, away from any security checks. "Obsolete or not, an SA-7 rolled up in a carpet in the back of a van will remain the worst nightmare of every modern day airport security officer for the foreseeable future," said one military analyst who did not want to be identified.

An SA-7 was responsible for downing the airplane that killed the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, the event that triggered the Rwandan massacre.

The missile's popularity among terrorist groups is worrying many in the airline industry who are exploring ways in which commercial airliners could fend off potential SA-7 attacks. Equipping a commercial airline with a device that could repel such a missile could cost as much as US$3-million per plane.

The American version of the SA-7, the Stinger, was responsible for shooting down more than 200 Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan in the 1980s. At the time, the CIA issued up to 4,000 Stingers to their Mujahedeen allies who were fighting the Soviets in the region. At the end of the war, the spy agency offered to buy back the weapons for US$30,000 each. However, only 70 were ever returned.


There are two versions: the SA-7a and SA-7b. The SA-7a was introduced for service in 1968, but was quickly replaced by the SA-7b which became the most common production model. The SA-7b, differs from the SA-7a primarily by using a boosted propellant charge to increase range and speed. This gives the SA-7b a slant range of about 4.2 km, a ceiling of about 2300 meters, and a speed of about 500 meters per second (Mach 1.75).

Country of origin: Russia

U.S. code name: SA-7

NATO code name: Grail

Russian Designation: Strela (2, 2M, 3)

Development Year: 1959

Deployment Year: 1967

Length: 1.44m

Body Diameter: 7.2cm

Launch Weight: 9.20kg

Warhead: 1.15kg HE fragmentation effect

Guidance: Heat seeking

Propulsion: Solid

Range: 3,600m

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