Obama may be looking to arm the Syrian rebels. But it looks like the opposition already has its hands on a working version of one of the world's deadliest shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The video above supposedly shows a rebel group with complete Russian-made SA-24 Grinch Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) -- a first according to Matt Schroeder of the Federation of American Scientists, who sent FP the video, calling this an "eerie, eerie development."
(The video also shows a Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, a weapon we wrote about being in the hands of Syrian rebels a few months ago.)
"This video appears to show a group with what appears to be a modern Russian SA-24 manpads AND a modern Chinese FN-6," said Schroeder in an email. "The FN-6s are fairly well documented but the SA-24s are not; I've only seen one video with an SA-24 and a gripstock in Syria. Never have I seen the two systems together - anywhere."
(Keep in mind that it's almost impossible to fire such missiles without a gripstock and battery. We're seen plenty of videos showing rebels handling the missiles and their launch tubes without grip stocks, making them pretty much harmless against aircraft.)
Why is this so significant? Introduced in 2004, the SA-24 is Russia's newest shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile and is "much more sophisticated than systems more commonly found on the black market, just in terms of range, ease of use, sensitivity of the seeker, speed," said Schroeder in a telephone interview.
The heat-seeking SA-24 is designed to hit targets flying at speeds of up to 720 miles per-hour and can fly as high as 20,000 feet and reach a top speed of 890 miles per-hour; a nasty little weapon. (Earlier this week, video emerged of Syrian rebels shooting down a government chopper with an older version of the Grinch known as an SA-16.)
One of the most disturbing things about this development, according to Schroeder. is that these weapons likely smuggled into the country via the black market. The Syrian military is not believed to have had SA-24s and the sale of such weapons is supposed to be strictly regulated.
"These are systems that could have been manufactures and exported since the MANPADS transfer control agreements were negotiated in 2003, 2004 and 2005," said Schroeder. "Those agreements lay out very specific guidelines for transfer controls and for stockpile security."
This could signal the "states involved are either defying those agreements or not taking them seriously enough," he added.
Interestingly, there are reports that SA-24s were smuggled out of Libya in during or immediately after the war to oust Muammar al Gaddafi in 2011 and ended up in the hands of militants in Gaza and Syria's Levantine neighbor, Lebanon.
While it would take "dozens" of SA-24s to do serious damage to Assad's air force, it would only take a few of these systems ending up in the wrong hands to pose a serious threat to civilian aircraft.
"Just a few dozen is a scary development in terms of the threat to civilian aircraft and the damage done to the" MANPADS export control framework, "is a very disturbing development," added Schroeder. "Even if a dozen were deliberately transferred to a non-state group by a state actor, a supporter of the Syrian rebels, that's a very disturbing development."
John Reed reports on the frontiers of cyber war and the latest in military technology for Killer Apps.