Lod Air Force Base (Israel), Nov. 29 (Reuters): Secret on-board defences, not pure luck, may have saved an Israeli airliner from being shot down over Kenya by two missiles, intelligence and arms experts said today.
The Boeing 757-300 Arkia passenger jet narrowly evaded two heat-seeking missiles on takeoff from the city of Mombasa yesterday, raising speculation it had used decoy flares — counter-measures akin to those of combat aircraft.
“Israel has been working on programmes to protect civil aviation from terrorist missile attacks since the 1970s,” said Yigal Eyal, a Hebrew University lecturer on insurgency and former Israeli intelligence agent. “The Mombasa incident could mark a successful application of some sort of anti-missile technology aboard the plane,” he said.
Israeli aviation authorities said strict security procedures governed flights such as the one attacked by Soviet-era “Strela” missiles fired by suspected pro-Palestinian militants with shoulder-mounted launchers. The plane, which had 261 people aboard, was not hit.
“Our procedure is to look at the worst possible scenario, and the way we acted was according to Israeli security instructions,” said Arkia CEO Israel Borovich.
“Israeli evasive security is the best in the world,” he added, declining to elaborate.
Arkia is a private airline but its security is overseen by Israel’s Shin Bet intelligence agency and held to the same tough standards for which national carrier El Al is renowned.
A source familiar with El Al procedures said several of its planes had in recent years been fitted with electronic sensors, aft and rear, capable of detecting incoming missiles.
The Israeli mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth said today that national arms manufacturer Rafael has developed scramblers which throw missile-guidance systems off course and are tailored for civilian aircraft.
Such technology would be useless against the relatively antiquated Strela missile, which locks on to a jet’s exhaust heat rather than its radar profile or flight trajectory. Since the Cold War, the missiles have been peddled widely in the developing world.
A shoulder-launched Strela was used in an attack by rebels in Chechnya that brought down a Russian Mi-26 army transport helicopter in August killing 118 people.
Kenyan television footage showed a Strela launcher abandoned near the Mombasa airstrip on Thursday. It was painted blue Ä the colour of practice ordnance in many militaries Ä indicating it may have been sub-standard and stolen from an army base.
Israeli military sources said booty Strelas from the 1973 Middle East war are used in training but at times prove duds.
Older models were primitive and sometimes thrown off course by ground heat, analysts said.
”This could just be a matter of Strelas being too primitive for the job, and missing,” said one Israeli security source.
But others said both Strelas missing the airliner at an altitude of 500 feet (130 metres) was unlikely unless it had countermeasures such as flares deployed from the aircraft.
This would conform to one passenger's description of a small ”explosion” above one of the plane's wings during the attack, even though the pilot told reporters the missiles passed were more than 100 metres (330 feet) away and disappeared into the horizon.
An Arkia spokeswoman said the reported flash of light and accompanying jolt happened at the back of the plane, but declined comment on the discrepancy with the pilot's testimony.
Arkia has two Boeing 757-300s in its fleet. One of them served as Israel Air Force One in May when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used it for a state visit to Washington.
The Arkia spokeswoman declined to say whether Flight 582 was the jet used by Sharon and his entourage six months ago.
In an apparent reference to such missions, Israeli air force commander Major-General Dan Halutz told reporters that countermeasure technology was available.
”It is not installed on most commercial aircraft, only on select ones,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Jason Neely in London)