The Complex

Chinese surface-to-air missiles are being used by Syrian rebels

This is interesting. The YouTube video below apparently shows what's looks like a Syrian air force Mi-8 Hip transport chopper being shot down by Syrian rebels using what appears to be a Chinese-made FN-6 shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile earlier this month.

While there have been some reports of the rebels seizing stocks of older Soviet-designed SA-7 Strela shoulder-fired missiles and possibly a few newer, much more capable Russian-made SA-24 Grinch missile systems, this is the first anyone has heard of anything other than Russian-made shoulder-fired missiles in rebel hands.

The FN-6 has a range of about 3.75 miles and can hit targets flying up to about 11,000 feet.

"This is a very significant development, none of us saw this coming," said Matthew Schroeder, director of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists. "Open source information suggests that few if any [FN-6s] are on the black market. This is a very rare occurrence and represents significant change in the [selection of] MANPADS available outside of government control."

Where did these missiles come from?

"That's the million dollar question," Schroeder says. "It's a fairly new system, it hasn't been exported that widely . . .  not like the SA-7s and HN-5s and older systems have been sitting in depots for generations" long before efforts to control their spread.

As Brown Moses Blog (a site dedicated to chronicling the weapons used in the Syrian conflict) points out, the nearest known operators of FN-6s to Syria are the Sudanese and Pakistani militaries. The vast majority of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles found throughout the Middle East and Africa are Russian-made -- including the thousands that may have flooded the black market after the fall of Muammar al Qaddafi's government in Libya.

Interestingly, Chinese state TV did a report on this chopper being shotdown showing a rebel holding this very weapon -- that's a screengrab from the segment above. That's right, Chinese government TV is running a story about a Chinese-made surface-to-air missile being used by the rebel army. What's also interesting is that China has warned against external involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Chinese Internet, China Defense Blog

The Complex

U.S. Air Force buys 20 propeller-driven attack planes

The U.S. Air Force just bought its first propeller-driven attack airplanes in decades.

The air service just gave Sierra Nevada Corp. (SNC) a $427 million contract for 20 Embraer A-29 Super Tucano light attack planes. SNC will build the Brazilian-designed planes in Florida. Why on Earth is the Air Force buying planes that strongly resemble World War II fighters equipped with modern bombs and cockpit displays? Because it plans on turning them over to the nascent Afghan air force to fight the Taliban.

The logic goes like this: the Afghans don't need and certainly can't afford to buy, operate, and maintain modern jet fighters (some of which burn more fuel on takeoff than the Super Tucano would use in an hour). Instead, the Afghan military needs a simple, rugged plane that can carry lots of bullets and bombs and stay over targets for long periods of time.

The Super Tucano is designed for exactly that type of mission. It's a so-called COIN (counterinsurgency) plane, and they are used by air forces around the world to do everything from hunting drug smugglers (in Brazil) to combating insurgencies (Colombia).  The U.S. Navy tested out a leased Super Tucano in Afghanistan in 2009, flying close air support missions for SEAL teams under a program called Imminent Fury.  (Two years ago this month, Embraer flew yours truly to their facilities in Brazil to see the Super T production line and fly the simulator.)

The U.S. efforts to purchase a prop-driven plane go back about five years. Some in the Air Force wanted to buy a fleet of such planes to provide close air support to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. They would have been better suited to such work than the service's aging fleet of fast jets, which were designed to kill Soviet MiGs not strafe insurgents and which cost a fortune for every hour they fly.

However, a number of factors including budget fights and congressional opposition got in the way until the service decided that it would only field a handful of planes and turn them over to the Afghans. Finally, in late 2011, the service gave SNC a contract for 20 planes. That was quickly overturned after rival Hawker Beechcraft protested the contract award. Since then, Hawker Beechcraft has gone bankrupt and, well, you see what's happened.