One of Russia’s most alarming new weapons capabilities may be on the move soon.
Jane’s reports that KBM, a state-owned armament company specializing in missile systems, recently presented its 9K333 Verba man-portable air defence system (MANPADS).
At an arms fair this week, the company announced that the weapon had been cleared for export — although KBM designer general Velariy Kashin would not reveal the foreign buyer or buyers.
According to Kashin, the 9K333 Verba is “the most capable” MANPADS ever developed, according to Jane’s. Missiles are guided to their targets using a “three-channel optical seeker, which operates in the ultraviolet, near-infrared, and mid-infrared wavelengths,” a feature that increases the weapon’s accuracy and speeds up its target acquisition.
As Armament Research Services explains, the 9K333’s targeting system is specially built to fool its targets’ anti-missile systems: Because the warheads contains three infrared sensors that are constantly cross-checking against one another, it is “even harder for a target aircraft to disrupt the system using decoys.” The missiles’ “seeker” also allows projectiles to better distinguish between aircraft and heat pockets that might throw off a less-advanced weapon’s targeting system.
The 9K333 can strike aircraft at up to 13,500 feet. The 9K38 Igla, a somewhat comparable system, only weighs about 27 pounds, making the 9K333 is an incredibly light-weight, mobile, and user-friendly tool for shooting planes out of the sky.
The 9K333’s first export licence a potentially ominous development. Small arms proliferation isn’t quite tas galvanizing issue as, say, the possible spread of nuclear weapons.
But while a nuclear warhead hasn’t been detonated for offensive purposes since 1945, MANPADS are one of the most democratizing weapons ever made, spreading anti-aircraft capabilities to armies and militia groups around the world.
There are scores of irregular forces and terrorist groups that would love to get their hands on something like the 9K333, and that could use it to wreak havoc on US or allied targets.
Worryingly, it doesn’t require all that much technical sophistical to down a low-flying aircraft with MANPADS that are less capable than the 9K333.
In the video below, rebels in Syria score a hit on an Assad regime helicopter using a Chinese-made FN-6:
That weapon, which debuted in 2005, can hit aircraft at 4,000 meters, about 500 meters shy of the 9K333 Verba’s ceiling. Though an older and less effective weapon than the 9K333, the FN-6’s manufacturers claim that it has a 70% success rate against aircraft flying within range.
The video show just how easy it is to operate these weapons: The Syrian fighters aren’t performing any complicated on-the-fly calculations to figure out firing trajectory and they don’t have any apparent technical means of determining their target’s altitude or speed.
They just point the launcher in the general direction of the enemy aircraft, quickly eyeball their target, and push a button — bringing down a helicopter that was probably orders of magnitude more expensive than the weapons system that destroyed it.
This encapsulates the danger of MANPADS, a topic that’s always an important bit of subtext for any US debate over aiding non-state groups.
These days, pretty much any able-bodied adult can learn how to take down an aircraft flying at near-commercial altitude, using a missile system that weighs less than 50 pounds and that can remain operable for decades.
In maybe the most notorious example of the danger of MANPADS, Stinger Missiles the US provided to anti-Soviet mujahideen in the 80s were later turned on American forces in Afghanistan. More recently, MANPADS looted from a Syrian government airfield may have ended up with ISIS fighters.
There’s an unknowably vast range of dangerous end-uses for any weapon. But MANPADS can deny a conventional force of air superiority and decisively shift battlefield momentum. And now, Russia is developing perhaps the most advanced MANPADS in history and shipping it off to unknown foreign buyers.
As if that isn’t alarming enough, there’s evidence that the 9K333 may have already seen action with Russian-supported irregular forces in Ukraine.
A video from mid-2014 depicts members of the Vostok Battalion, a pro-Russian militia founded in Chechnya by Russian intelligence operatives that was sent into Ukraine last year, posing with the weapons.
Around the same time, pro-Kiev media claimed that a Ukrainian government plane had been shot down by a 9K333 outside of the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk.
The Ukrainian separatists have questionable trigger discipline as far as anti-aircraft weapons are concerned — pro-Russian forces killed 295 people by shooting down a Malaysian airlines plane on July 17th, 2014, likely with a Buk missile Moscow had provided the fighters.
Last year, Russia sent one of the most advanced shoulder-fired missile systems ever built to irregular military proxies that later proved themselves to be wildly irresponsible stewards of high-end weaponry.
Now, a government reeling from EU and US sanctions is granting export licenses for sales of that system to undisclosed foreign buyers — something that could have untold consequences when the 9K333 inevitably falls into the wrong hands.
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