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Could a Missile have Downed a Russian Airliner over Sinai?

Could a Missile have Downed a Russian Airliner over Sinai?

A Libyan rebel in April 2011 with a complete SA-7 shoulder-fired missile system. Thousands of the antiaircraft missiles, an older Eastern Bloc model, are believed to be missing. Credit Chris Chivers/The New York Times

This week, A Russian Metrojet airliner Airbus A321 crashed after departing from Sharm El Sheikh on route to St. Petersburg. The Egyptian resort is a well-travelled destination in the Sinai Peninsula, but also has had occasional issues with terror attacks. The Sinai has been the source of much conflict between the Egyptian army and various radical groups. Victims of the crash were mostly Russian citizens, with victims also coming from Ukraine as well as Belarus.

The cause of the crash is not yet known, but witnesses claim that the airliner looked to have fire coming from one of the engines and saw the plane break up midair. It is unclear how reliable this information is, but on November 2nd officials made suggestions that it did not occur from technical or pilot error. Claims from some ISIS-affiliated groups that they brought down the airliner were refuted by the Russian and Egyptian governments, and the case has not been resolved with the cause of the accident remaining unknown. It was suggested that the airliner had been struck by an external object, but the information is not yet conclusive on what that object may have been.

Without a technical issue nor pilot error being the cause of the crash, attention has turned toward a possible external object hitting the plane. The object may have fallen off the plane itself or be a possible missile strike on the plane. Sabotage or an internal attack within the fuselage of the A321 may also have been possible, but to date no theory has proven to be conclusive.

If the fire on the engine did occur, it is unlikely that an internal combustion caused a fire outside of the fuselage of the airplane. Sabotage may be a possibility, but with ground crew claiming that the plane was ready to fly with no issues, further investigation would be needed to qualify that type of action. A bird may also have caused some damage, but it is unlikely it would cause an engine fire and the plane to break up, as engines are designed to process birds and other obstructions.

With Russia’s new role in Syria and terror activities taking place in Sinai, theories on how and why an airliner could have been brought down by a possible attack has become the front page story for many media outlets. There are claims by some experts that while anti-aircraft missiles may have played a role in a possible external strike, the type of missiles needed to hit the airliner over 20,000ft were not present in the Sinai or possessed by radical groups in the area. Systems like the Buk or Tor, or even older systems like the Kub were not present in the area nor their large missiles spotted on radar in the area.

Suggestions that the groups in the area may possess the shoulder launched SA-7 series of missiles or a Chinese variant of the missile may validate the claim of an attack, but the upgraded SA-18 MANPAD that are possibly in the area can only reach targets under 17,000ft, and the airliner was at around 26,000ft to 31,000ft at the time of the accident. The aircraft being hit by missiles, shells or bullets at lower altitude after take-off may be possible, but unlikely.

The dissolution of the security structure in Libya and Syria may have lead to many shoulder launched anti-aircraft missiles like the SA-7, SA-14, SA-16, SA-18 and American Stinger coming into the hands of groups that may use such weapons against civilian targets. The effect of an anti-aircraft missile on the Malaysian airliners flight over Ukraine was horrific, but such advanced larger systems and missiles like the Buk-M1 are not easily hidden or transported. Small, portable missiles like the SA-18 are a danger to mostly lower flying aircraft, but could be used to bring down airliners in Egypt and other regions of the world. A concerted effort to collect and control such weapons should become a paramount issue for the international community.



Richard Basas

Richard Basas, a Canadian Masters Level Law student educated in Spain, England, and Canada (U of London MA 2003 LL.M., 2007), has worked researching for CSIS and as a Reporter for the Latin America Advisor. He went on to study his MA in Latin American Political Economy in London with the University of London and LSE. Subsequently, Rich followed his career into Law focusing mostly on International Commerce and EU-Americas issues. He has worked for many commercial and legal organisations as well as within the Refugee Protection Community in Toronto, Canada, representing detained non-status indivduals residing in Canada. Rich will go on to study his PhD in International Law.

Areas of Focus:
Law; Economics and Commerce; Americas; Europe; Refugees; Immigration