Working with my Stratfor colleagues to analyze the rebel offensive in Syria's Idlib governorate, we have been impressed by the rebels' use of high terrain to gain an advantage over Syrian government forces. The operation has Syrian loyalists trapped in valleys along which the main highways in the region run and in which many of the cities and towns are located.
Anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) such as the U.S.-manufactured BGM-71E TOW system have been one of the weapons effectively employed from this high ground against loyalist targets. Dozens of videos featuring rebel ATGM attacks have been posted to the Internet, showing the destruction of scores of government vehicles and fighting positions. It appears that the United States wants the groups receiving TOW missiles to provide video documentation of the weapons' use, considering that there are a proportionately higher number of videos of TOW attacks than those involving other ATGMs.
In addition to the TOWs, however, there are also European-made Milan missiles in use, along with Russian 9M113 Konkurs, 9K115-2M Metis-M and 9M133 Kornet systems — also known by their respective NATO designation; AT-5, AT-13 and AT-14. External supporters such as the United States, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have provided the TOW system and Chinese made Hongjian-8 missiles to the Syrian rebel groups while the Russian systems have been captured from the Syrian military. Indeed, there have been a number of rebel videos showing large ATGM caches being captured.
Some of the missile shots featured in these videos are impressive. The rebel TOW gunners have been able to hit targets, sometimes moving targets, at considerable distances. The TOW is wired guided, meaning that the operator can make in-flight corrections to the missile, but the projectile must be guided all the way to the target, unlike fire-and-forget systems. From an unscientific method of watching the attack videos and counting the seconds from launch to impact, it is clear that some of the shots are out near the TOW's maximum range of 3,750 meters (2.3 miles). The TOW projectile travels at 278 meters per second.
In fact, from these videos it becomes clear that over the past few months, some of the Syrian rebel TOW gunners have fired more rounds in combat and scored more kills with the weapon than any dismounted U.S. TOW gunner ever has. There is a parallel here with the use of FIM-92 Stinger surface-to-air missiles in Afghanistan: Afghan rebels fired far more live Stingers and shot down more aircraft than any U.S. soldier to date.
And the parallels between TOW and Stinger missiles go further. Both have provided decisive advantages in battle to rebel forces that deployed them effectively on the battlefield. Also, like Stingers, ATGMs pose a risk of proliferation outside of the war zone, and could be used quite effectively in a terrorist attack.
As we've discussed in the past, arms have been flowing into Syria from a variety of sources, including the legal, black and gray arms markets. Russia, for example, is providing arms to the Syrian government through legal channels, while Iran — a country under an arms embargo — is doing so illegally through the black arms market. On the other side of the battle, the United States, Turkey and Gulf Cooperation Council member countries have been providing Syrian rebel groups with weapons through gray and black arms transactions. Indeed, the Swiss government has been quite upset that hand grenades and other weapons it sold to the United Arab Emirates have shown up in the hands of Syrian rebels.
Arming rebel groups can be a risky proposition on a chaotic battlefield that is constantly changing. As noted above, weapons provided by Russia and Iran have been captured from Syrian government stores by a range of rebel groups, and U.S.-made TOW missiles have been captured by Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda's franchise in Syria. Certainly, such incidents have reinforced the conviction of those who opposed supplying man-portable air defense systems to the Syria rebels.
One problem with providing arms is that they are durable goods. While certain types of weapons and weapons components have a limited shelf life — such as battery-coolant units for a Stinger missile — numerous other weapons remain functional for many decades. It is not unusual to find a militant or a soldier carrying a Lee Enfield rifle manufactured before his great-grandfather was born. M-40 recoilless rifles provided by the United States to the government of Libya before Moammar Gadhafi's 1969 coup proved an effective weapons system in the battle of Misrata, and have even been shipped from Libya to the rebels in Syria.
Weapons are also interchangeable. An AK-47-style rifle manufactured in Russia is essentially the same as one manufactured in Pakistan or Egypt, and an M16-style rifle manufactured in China can easily replace an M16 manufactured in the United States. In a place like Syria, it is not unusual to find a rebel group carrying rifles manufactured in different countries and even different eras.
Another problem is that weapons tend to retain their value and are easily converted to cash. Buying weapons from a place where there is an oversupply and then selling them in a place where there is a heavy demand can be highly lucrative, explaining why weapons so readily flow to conflict zones.
And this brings us back to the many ATGM systems — and highly experienced ATGM gunners — floating around Syria. The thought that the systems alongside seasoned gunners could pour out of Syria into other countries in the region is troubling, especially if they make their way into to the hands of an organization that seeks to use them for terrorist attacks.
From the early days of the modern terrorism era, a wide array of actors have attempted to use anti-tank weapons such as LAW rockets, rocket-propelled grenade systems and bazooka rockets to attack diplomatic missions, Western businesses, business executives and government officials. Many of these assaults failed because inexperienced attackers missed their targets, chose inappropriate targets to use the weapons against, or otherwise botched the attack. I know of two cases in Latin America in which attacks with M72 LAW rockets failed because the attackers did not realize that the rocket's warhead has a minimum arming distance of 10 meters and the rockets were launched too close to the intended target.
As a security practitioner, the thought of 17 November members running around Greece armed with an M20 bazooka launcher is scary. But the thought of an al Qaeda or Islamic State operative who is an accomplished ATGM gunner running around Turkey, Iraq or Jordan with a TOW or Kornet is absolutely terrifying.
A light anti-tank rocket like an RPG-7 or M20 bazooka is vastly and qualitatively different than a modern ATGM. Not only does a guided missile have a larger warhead capable of causing far more destruction, but ATGMs also have a much longer range (up to 5,500 meters for a Kornet). Since ATGMs are guided, they are far more accurate and can maneuver in flight, so they are more capable of engaging moving targets than anti-tank rocket systems that cannot be adjusted once launched. These systems also come with sophisticated optics that can acquire targets from thousands of meters away. Under the right conditions, these systems can even be used to effectively engage low, slow-moving aircraft
If a TOW or Kornet can defeat the armor on a main battle tank equipped with reactive armor, it is more than capable of destroying even the heaviest armored limousine. Missiles variants designed with thermobaric warheads for engaging bunkers would also pose a considerable threat to a government building, embassy or office building — especially if the office of the minister, ambassador or CEO could be identified and targeted.
The U.S. government has gone through the nightmare of attempting to track down and buy back Stinger missiles provided to rebels in Afghanistan, after the Soviet withdrawal. They have also spent millions of dollars to buy and destroy thousands of surface-to-air missiles following the revolution in Libya. With this history, it is certain that the United States has concerns over furnishing powerful ATGMs to Syrian rebels, and has undoubtedly employed technology to aid in tracking the missiles — and perhaps something capable of disabling them if they fall into the wrong hands.
The United States has also been careful to only gradually increase the allotment of TOW missiles per shipment, as each Syrian group proved its reliability over time. It appears that some groups were only given one missile to start, then batches of two or three, and now it appears some of the more credible groups are receiving up to 10 per shipment. Hopefully, the Europeans and Gulf countries have taken similar precautions, though that is less likely. The problem of ATGM proliferation is perhaps most acute regarding the Russian systems that have been captured from government stockpiles rather than those provided by external donors. These systems are highly capable — indeed, the laser-guided Kornet is arguably superior to the wire-guided TOW — and there are no external controls on them.
The sheer size of these ATGM systems, however, will make it difficult for a group like al Qaeda or the Islamic State to smuggle them transnationally. There is little chance of them being taken to the United States or Western Europe. However, there are thriving smuggling routes going in and out of Syria and Iraq from nearly every direction, and items larger than an ATGM system are smuggled out of Syria and Iraq to neighboring countries regularly. It is not unreasonable to assume that an ATGM system could be smuggled out of the country along with an experienced gunner.
Drawbacks to Guided Missile Systems
Despite their deadliness, range and accuracy, ATGM systems do have some disadvantages when used as a terrorist weapon. They are somewhat large and hard to camouflage — especially in a city where there are many potential onlookers. These systems must also have line of sight to engage a target. Consequently, monitoring activity at possible ATGM launch sites can help protect stationary targets like buildings.
Engaging a specific mobile target with an ATGM requires the attackers to identify the travel patterns of the target and then find a suitable kill zone. Such an engagement requires a great deal of surveillance, a process that would make the attackers vulnerable to detection. Also, like anti-tank rockets, ATGMs have a minimum arming range (65 meters for a TOW and 100 meters for Kornet), limiting potential attack sites, especially in a congested urban environment. In such cases, the long standoff distances the U.S. government has been trying to achieve to protect its embassies from large truck bombs could actually prove to be a liability.
With al Qaeda seeking to hit U.S. interests in the region and beyond, and the Islamic State also threatening attacks, the danger posed by the proliferation of ATGMs and trained gunners in Syria and Iraq cannot be ignored by those responsible for protecting people and facilities.