Coalition aircraft use decoy flares near Kabul airport

Hundreds of decades-old heat-seeking missiles remain unaccounted for in Afghanistan

US military helicopters drop decoy flares while flying over the Afghan capital of Kabul. Photo: AP
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Footage has emerged of a French A400 M cargo plane using decoy flares as it takes off from Kabul airport during efforts to move westerners and Afghans out of the city.

About 20,000 people have been flown out of Afghanistan since the Taliban seized control of the capital on August 15.

US Apache helicopter gunships have also been seen dropping the flares.

What are decoy flares?

Decoy flares were developed to counter infrared homing, or “heat-seeking", missiles. The basic idea is that the magnesium in the flares burns at more than 1,000ºC, hotter than the engine exhaust of the aircraft, enough to attract a heat-seeking missile.

The Taliban, ISIS and several Al Qaeda-linked groups active in parts of Afghanistan are not known to possess functioning heat-seeking missiles.

During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the US sent hundreds of Fim-92 Stinger shoulder-launched missile systems to the mujahideen, who mainly used them on the Soviet helicopter fleet.

But as Afghanistan descended into civil war after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, the CIA attempted to buy back the weapons, also known as man-portable air-defence systems, or Manpads, with limited success.

When the US invaded in 2001, it was concerned those weapons had been passed on to the Taliban. There were thought to be no more than 250 Manpads, and about 600 missiles, unaccounted for in Afghanistan.

Leaked US military reports in 2010 suggested the Taliban may have successfully used the weapons on a coalition Chinook helicopter in 2007, killing the passengers and crew.

There may also have been 10 other near-misses, the reports said.

The low number of attacks supported the US assessment that the Stingers, some of which are now almost 40 years old, were not in good condition.

The Taliban may also possess Russian-made SA-7 Manpads, possibly captured during conflicts following Russia's withdrawal. Like the Stingers, these devices are decades old and there are few accounts of them being used.

But US intelligence reports leaked in 2010 also said the Taliban may have been given Manpads by neighbouring countries, including Iran. That was the assessment of US documents released following a freedom of information request in 2020. US reports said that if Iran had supplied Manpads to the Taliban, the devices were in a state of disrepair.

While there is a low risk that ISIS and Al Qaeda fighters have functioning missiles, the crew on board the French aircraft may not have wanted to take any chances as they left Kabul airport.

Manpads are a threat to low-flying aircraft and destroyed Soviet planes taking off in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

The US are also well aware of this.

“We occasionally see the SA-7 type hand-held Irsam [infrared surface-to-air missile]," Air Force Gen Gary North said in 2009.

"Every aircraft in our tactical lift and our rotor-type helicopters have got defensive measures capability and our intelligence is very good, and so our aviators going out are armed with the latest intelligence and the best in technology for infrared missile defeat.”

Updated: August 22, 2021, 3:25 PM