SA-7 Missile: Old, But Deadly Technology

Attackers may have missed their target when they fired two SA-7 missiles at an Israeli plane last Thursday, but the world was reminded of a potentially deadly weapon in terrorists' hands. Here's a look at the SA-7, its history and capabilities.

How They Work

The missiles weigh about 30 pounds and are about 5 feet long. They can fit inside a large duffel bag and can be fired from the gunner's shoulder.

When operating the missile, the gunner aims at a target, starts the missile's power supply and pulls a trigger to activate the missile's target lock system.

The total time required to fire the missile is six seconds.

To strike its target, the SA-7 uses a heat-detection system to pursue a plane.

The missile self-destructs after 14 to 17 seconds of flight if it misses its target.

Missile's History

First versions of the missile were developed by the Soviet army in 1967.

The first recorded combat use of the SA-7 was in 1969 during the Egyptian-Israeli War of Attrition.

According to a report by the Federation of American Scientists, during the 1980s, in an effort to topple the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan, the U.S. government provided mujahideen with Soviet-made SA-7s.

The FBI estimates that from 1978 through 1998, 29 civilian planes were downed by shoulder-fired missiles, including the SA-7, most of them in war zones. A total of 550 people died.

Where Are They Now?

The relatively simple design and low cost of the missile has since led to its wide distribution among guerrilla groups. The cost of an SA-7 can be as low as $5,000.

In the last 15 years, more than 50,000 shoulder-fired missiles have been sold to Third World countries.

SA-7s were reportedly recovered from al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan and al Qaeda is believed to have fired missiles at U.S. aircraft in Saudi Arabia and Yemen in the past.

At least 17 terrorist organizations, and 56 countries are believed to possess shoulder-fired SA-7 missiles.

Countries that use and have used the missile include Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Pakistan, Egypt, China, and likely many more. The missiles have also surfaced in Nicaragua, Sudan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, and all over Afghanistan.

The Russian army has since replaced the SA-7 with an improved version known as SA-7b.

Pakistan is the only country where production of the basic SA-7 is still in place.

North Korea and Cuba also make their own versions of the missile, but they do not export the missiles.

Capability

The SA-7 can reach altitudes of up to 12,000 feet, and can be accurately launched from more than two miles away. The altitude of the weapon depends on the speed of the target.

In comparison, U.S.-made Stinger missiles have a range of 5 miles and can hit aircraft flying at 10,000 feet or higher.

Possible Defenses

Onboard anti-missile systems detect heat-seeking missiles and then send out high-temperature flares to lure the missile away from the plane. Experts say these anti-missile flares are about 90 percent effective.

New technology includes a device that looks similar to a disco ball that twirls behind the exhausts of helicopter engines and can skew the focus of some surface-to-air missiles.

The latest anti-missile gadget recognizes the rocket plume from a missile and aims a laser beam at the missile's sensors to blind its path. This technology has only been used in tests.

The CIA is believed to have been trying secretly to buy back the hundreds of SA-7s thought to remain in Afghanistan.

Sources: Tony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Jane's Defense Weekly, Federation of American Scientists, Federal Emergency Management Agency