On 21 June 2012, Syrian pilot Col Hassan Hamada took off in a MiG-21 from al-Dumair military airport, northeast of Damascus, and flew to King Hussein air base just across Syria’s southern border with Jordan, before requesting political asylum. Unlike in earlier defections, Syria put heavy pressure on Jordan to return the impounded aircraft. According to some sources, the fighter was found to have been fitted with a remote-control system, and with the capability to carry and dispense a “deadly volume” of chemical warfare agents. Tal Inbar, a senior researcher at Israel’s Fisher Institute for Air and Space, says such adaptations have previously been made in other countries, including Iraq, but notes that there is no hard evidence yet that Syria modified the aircraft to perform unmanned missions with chemical weapons.
The other countries referred to in the story are Iraq and Libya. Both had difficulty with the conversion and could never overcome stability issues. Thus, the track record for these types of conversions in the Middle East is less than stellar. According to Dennis Gormley’s Missile Contagion (A must buy for missile nerds out there):
Iraq tried to convert its Mig-21s in late 1990 for one-way missions to deliver chemical and biological munitions. The original plan called for the plane to take off remotely, apparently from the ground. A piloted aircraft would then take control of the RPV until it reached a given altitude, after which the RPV would be flown to the target area via its controller and then, using its own autopilot, it would dive into the target. Despite turning to a foreign control supplier (in Germany), the Iraqis failed to overcome flight control and stability problems, which also continued to vex Iraqi engineers with their next attempt at remote control flight with the Czech L-29.
Dubbed Al Bay’ah, the conversion of the L-29 trainer into an RPV commenced in 1995. Control of the flight vehicle was to have taken place by means of a ground control van borrowed from an Italian Mirach-100 UAV system. After some problems were solved during taxi testing, the initial flight test, in which the air vehicle stayed in the airfield traffic pattern, proved succesful. But once tests began to determine how far the vehicle could fly under the ground controller’s video and command signals, the vehicle could only remain under control for 60 – 70 km before losing signal and crashing. The Iraqis tried to rectify the problem by installing the stabilizer from a Chinese C-611 ASCM [anti-ship cruise missile], but the instrument proved insufficient due to aircraft drift.
Ibn-Firnas conducted another 26 tests of the L-29 between 1999 and 2001 trying to improve aircraft flight control, yet none were truly unmanned ones, controlled from the ground; a pilot was always present in the cockpit. When an unmanned flight crashed in 2001, Ibn-Firnas gave up and recommended the program’s termination, which occurred promptly. Thus, after roughly six years, the Iraqi conversion program was aborted due largely to persistent control problems. From the documentary record of the Iraq Study Group, Iraq’s struggle with both cruise missile programs and manned aircraft conversion stemmed largely from a lack of specialized know-how, not a shortage of technology.
The problem with such claims is that these sensational news reports do not take into account the need for both explicit and tacit knowledge to design and develop military systems. Syrian engineers surely have the technical capability to convert a Mig-21 into a remotely piloted vehicle. Syria, therefore, certainly has the explicit knowledge for such a task. However, the complexities of managing such a program and gaining know-how over time (tacit knowledge) does not simply happen overnight. Iraq, which is used as an “example” of another country that has supposedly modified its aircraft, could never actually figure out how to make the system work. Therefore, claims about Syria’s alleged conversion of a Mig-21 and other issues like the potential for a rebel group to mix chemical precursors to create chemical weapons should be treated with caution. I am not saying that they should be dismissed out of hand, but it is important to put these threats into greater perspective. Assad has developed a robust chemical weapons capability and is rumored to have had considerable assistance in developing capable delivery systems. Therefore, the greatest chemical weapons threat remains Assad’s continued capability to deliver chemical weapons via missile, gravity bomb, or artillery shell.
It makes no sense for Assad to convert such aircraft at this juncture. His forces continue to control the air and there still appear to be no concrete plans to provide the rebels with surface-to-air missiles. Moreover, even if the story is true, Assad gains little from the aircraft conversion. The threat of chemical weapons use has not deterred the Syrian rebels and remains a redline for intervention by the international community. Observers should remain skeptical about most claims from Syria and continue to put claims like these into perspective.