by ADAM RAWNSLEY
An Iranian-backed proxy group in Iraq released a video on Sunday showing its fighters in possession QW-1M man-portable air-defense missiles, marking the introduction of one of the more sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons seen in more than a decade of conflict in Iraq.
The video, released by the Shiite terrorist group Kata’ib Hezbollah, shows fighters parading with the missile. In one scene, the camera zooms in on the launch tube to reveal its QW-1M markings.
China’s Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation manufactures the QW-1M, and the missile launcher first appeared in 2002 at the China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition. But responsibility for its introduction into Iraq likely lies with Iran.
The U.S. State Department designated Kata’ib Hezbollah as a foreign terrorist organization in 2009, describing it as a “a radical Shia Islamist group with an anti-Western establishment and jihadist ideology that has conducted attacks against Iraqi, U.S. and coalition targets in Iraq.”
In a classified State Department cable leaked by WikiLeaks, State Department officials further noted that the group receives support from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force, which conducts covert operations abroad, and the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group.
Iran uses a local variant of the Chinese QW-1 Vanguard under the designation Misagh-1, and there are clues that Tehran may also be in possession of the latter QW-1M series missiles.
The QW-1M has been seen in the wild outside of state control only once before — in 2013. As The New York Times’ C.J. Chivers first reported, U.S. agents seized QW-1M missiles from a dhow off the coast of Yemen in January 2013. American officials believe Iran sent the missiles and intended to supply Houthi rebels in Yemen.
MANPADS have featured frequently in Iraq’s continuing conflict. Until recently, however, the systems have generally been older and less capable than the QW-1M.
Matt Schroeder, an analyst at the Small Arms Survey, published a 2012 study of more than 1,100 arms caches found in Iraq from January 2008 through September 2009 using Defense Department data obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.
“Most of the weapons that we saw we suspect were legacy systems that were looted from Saddam Hussein’s arsenals, with a few notable exceptions,” Schroeder said.
The data showed that older SA-7 MANPADS, manufactured in the 1970s and early 1980s, showed up most frequently.
The exception to these generally less-capable systems were often found in the hands of Iran-linked Shia terrorist groups in the form of the QW-1 Vanguard or Misagh-1, first produced in 1994.
American officials complained to the Chinese government in May of 2008 about its transfer of QW-1 technology to Iran. The officials cited the firing of a Misagh-1 by Iranian-linked Shia militias at a civilian airliner in Iraq in 2004, according to leaked WikiLeaks cables.
Kata’ib Hezbollah was apparently one of the Iran-linked groups receiving QW-1 technology. A video that surfaced in 2010 shows a Kata’ib Hezbollah fighter firing a QW-1 at an unidentified airborne target.
But the QW-1M variant of MANPADS represents an increase in the known anti-aircraft capability of Shia militias in Iraq.
“The QW-1M is more sophisticated than the first generation SA-7s MANPADS that we see most frequently [in Iraq],” Schroeder said. “It appears to be more advanced than the QW-1s which were the most advanced MANPADS that we’d seen in Iraq until recently.”
Older SA-7 MANPADS variants in Iraq tend to be easily thrown off by aircraft countermeasures designed to confuse the infrared seekers on the missiles, in addition to environmental heat sources.
Jane’s 2011–2012 Land-Based Air Defense catalog, however, lists the more recent QW-1M as equipped with unspecified “enhanced countermeasures” designed to foil such aircraft defenses.
Moreover, the components of older MANPADS systems decay over time, degrading performance. The QW-1M, dating to the early 2000s, is likely to be a more reliable weapon than many of the anti-aircraft missiles previously seen in Iraq — many of which date back decades.
The Chinese FN-6 MANPADS, debuting in 2005, is the only comparable system we’ve seen in Iraq recently. A video from October 2014 shows a fighter from the Islamic State firing an FN-6 at an Iraqi military helicopter.
The lack of information about the extent of Kata’ib Hezbollah’s MANPADS arsenal makes it difficult to estimate the scale of the threat to Iraq’s airspace. The video shows several different shots of fighters posing with the missiles, but only two missiles are ever shown simultaneously.
Nonetheless, the introduction of sophisticated, portable air-defense missiles represents an increase in the threat to aviation in Iraq.
The State Department describes countering the proliferation of MANPADS in terror groups as a “top U.S. national security priority” that can “pose a serious threat to passenger air travel, the commercial aviation industry and military aircraft around the world.”