I was talking with Edwina today about the possibility that the British Hawker-Siddeley Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance aircraft that crashed in Afghanistan recently was shot down by a FIM-92 Stinger missile, as Taliban representatives claimed. Fourteen British airmen were killed in the crash: the largest single day loss of British military personnel since the Falklands War. Given the ongoing presence of the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan and the famous provision of about 500 of these surface-to-air missiles to the Mujaheddin by the CIA during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, it is a question with contemporary relevance for Canadians.
Under construction since 1981 by the Raytheon Corporation (which also makes the washers and dryers used in residences at the University of British Columbia), the Stinger missile has a range of about 4800 metres and a maximum altitude of about 3800 – well below the cruising altitude of commercial aircraft. The Stinger seeks targets using an infrared homing system and is propelled using a two-stage chemical rocket. The homing system is thus vulnerable to flares used as decoy heat signatures, as well as to the reduction of an aircraft’s thermal profile through mechanisms like the internally mounted turbofan engines on vehicles like the B-2 Spirit Bomber, not that the Canadian Forces will or should get any of those.
Most of the reporting on the crash says that it was the result of a technical fault. This is the position that has been taken officially by NATO and the RAF, while the Taliban has claimed that it shot the plane down. There were Taliban fighters in the area, as evidenced by the rapidity with which the British Special Air Service (SAS) commandos were dispatched to destroy any secret electronic equipment that survived the malfunction and subsequent crash. Of course, it would be especially embarrassing to have a Â£100 million plane shot down and fourteen British soldiers killed by a $26,000 missile that was given to your enemies by the country with whom the Blair government is so loyally and controversially allied. As with the earlier discussion on conspiracy theories, we are left with little means for analyzing the official reports aside from our own intuition about which sources are trustworthy and which explanations are credible.
Whether the crash was an accident (as seems most plausible) or the result of enemy action, the dangers of continued military operations in Afghanistan are demonstrated. Even with complete air superiority, powerful allies, and all the other advantages of being in a superpower coalition, Canadian, British, and American soldiers will continue to die in Afghanistan until such a time as we decide to leave that country to the government and warlords who effectively control it today.