A missile fired by insurgents from the ground probably destroyed an RAF Hercules
C-130 cargo plane in Iraq with the loss of 10 British special operations servicemen,
an interim report by Ministry of Defence accident investigators has revealed.
The findings, outlined to MPs by Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, raised
fears within the MoD that the insurgents could possess a new missile capable
of hitting aircraft flying above 15,000 feet.
The board of inquiry ruled out the possibility that the Hercules, which was
supplying a special-operations base north of Baghdad, was blown up by an on-board
bomb or an explosion caused by an accident with bombs or ammunition on board.
The inquiry team will now have to determine whether the plane was brought down
by a heat-seeking missile designed to reach aircraft at high altitude or was
a lucky strike by insurgents using a Sam (surface-to-air) missile which normally
has a range of less than 10,000 feet.
In a written Commons statement yesterday, Mr Hoon said the inquiry team had
ruled out a number of possibilities. "These are bird strike, lightning
strike, mid-air collision, controlled flight into the ground, wire-obstacle
strike, restriction in the aircraft's flying controls, cargo explosion, engine
fire, sabotage (including the use of an improvised explosive device) and aircraft
The implications were so serious that MoD sources refused to confirm the altitude
at which the Hercules was flying when it was brought down. "We can't get
into speculation," said one MoD source. "We have to await the final
report of the board of inquiry."
The transport, with nine RAF personnel and one SAS soldier, was halfway through
its flight from Baghdad to a US base at Balad when it crashed, strewing blazing
wreckage across a wide area. It is believed to have been flying at an altitude
above 15,000 feet to avoid hostile fire.
The insurgents are known to have Sams but it would be unprecedented for one
to bring down a plane flying at such a height. The inquiry team will produce
a report on "lessons to be learned" from the accident which could
include a greater need for evasive action.
Hercules planes routinely dive steeply and throw out chaff to deflect incoming
missiles when they are coming in to land, but a missile capable of reaching
alliance aircraft could mean they will have to fly higher.
A video said to show footage of an insurgent firing two missiles and the plane
crashing was shown on al-Jazeera television, but was thought to be faked. The
findings suggest the MoD's fears have been realised and it depicted a real strike,
even if it had been re-enacted. The incident was the biggest single loss of
British life in Iraq since military action began in 2003.
Peter Felstead, the editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, said the statement pointed
to the Hercules being hit by insurgents from the ground. "It seems quite
interesting that it has ruled out very many things but not ground fire,"
The crew may have been "stooging around" and flying low without permission,
he added. That suggestion, which will have to be investigated by the inquiry,
will anger the families of the dead men, and was dismissed as "just speculation"
by the MoD last night.