The U.S. government calls it the “one of the most lethal” weapons of its kind — an advanced, portable missile, designed to knock planes out of the sky. A variant of it just showed up in Moammar Gadhafi’s army and nobody seems to know how exactly it got there. But diplomatic cables, unearthed by WikiLeaks, suggest one potential culprit: the Chavez regime in Venezuela.
Aviation Week’s eagle-eyed reporter David Fulghum spotted a Russian SA-24 Grinch surface-to-air missile mounted on a Libyan army truck in recent cable news footage. And that’s a cause for concern: The SA-24 is more accurate, longer-flying, and more lethal than than earlier models of surface-to-air missiles. It also has a dual-band infrared seeker and is more difficult to jam than older systems.
The missiles “reportedly have counter-countermeasures that may be difficult for planes with just flares to counter,” Matthew Schroeder, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project, tells Danger Room. ”Overall it’s just a much more capable system.”
Aviation Week reports that the majority of coalition combat air patrols are conducted at 20,000 feet or higher, putting them above the roughly 11,000-foot range of the SA-24. But as Fulghum notes, this still leaves plenty of humanitarian, evacuation or other lower-flying operations at risk.
So how did the missile get there and where did it come from? Thanks to a shaky system of international arms-sale monitoring, its hard to say.
Russia has shown a willingness to sell Libya other sophisticated air defense systems in the recent past. In 2010, Moscow announced a deal to sell Tripoli a $1.8 billion package of arms that included two batteries of its big, bleeding-edge S-300 air defense missiles, in addition to Sukhoi fighter jets and T-90 tanks. But the deal was never finalized.
Schroeder says he can’t find any other Russian missile sales in the last seven years. But countries aren’t always keen to be candid about their arms deals.
“Many countries do not report — or report inconsistently — to the UN Arms Register, and even those that do report often withhold key information, such as the model of the weapons that are transferred,” Schroeder says.
Russia has sold Venezuela a shoulder-fired version of the SA-24, which is a bit different from the truck-mounted model found by Aviation Week. In classified cables released by WikiLeaks, American diplomats expressed alarm at Russia’s deal with Venezuela, writing that the missile, “considered one of the most lethal portable air defense systems ever made,” was at risk of falling into other hands.
Faced with evidence that Russia’s sales of ammunition to Venezuela had ended up in the hands of Colombian terrorists, Russian diplomats tried to reassure their American counterparts that they had their arms sales under control.
“Russian law provides specific measures to prevent illegal transfers to third parties,” one cable quoted a Russian diplomat as saying. I’m sure coalition pilots are completely reassured.
Gadhafi is reportedly close to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has blasted the coalition attacks on Libya.
The two are so close that, at one point last month, many speculated the Libyan dictator had sought exile in Venezuela. Perhaps there was a different arrangement.