By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea's naval unit operating off the coast of Somalia has been placed on high alert over Somali pirates' possible attacks using U.S. surface-to-air guided missiles against its helicopter, according to intelligence and Navy sources Monday.
The National Intelligence Service and the Defense Security Command recently provided the classified information to the Cheonghae Unit that Somali pirates seemed to have acquired ``Stinger'' missiles from al-Qaeda, said the sources.
The Stinger missile is a personal portable infrared homing surface-to-air missile developed in the United States for service in 1981. The shoulder-launched weapon has to date been responsible for downing 270 aircraft.
The missile can hit targets flying as high as 3,500 meters at a speed of Mach 2. It has a range of eight kilometers.
``Cheonghae has been put on alert since its Lynx helicopter doesn't have any single sensor system against Stinger-like guided anti-aircraft missiles,'' an intelligence source told The Korea Times on condition of anonymity.
The unit reported the potential threat missiles to the Navy command here and requested data on the weapon, the source said.
To avoid an anti-aircraft attack when taking pictures of Somali pirates during missions for public affairs, the unit also asked the Navy headquarters to send a 400mm zoom lens to replace the current 300mm lens, he said. With a 300mm lens, a photographer can take a picture of target up to 1.5 kilometers away, but a 400mm lens doubles the range.
A military spokesman in Seoul said there was no confirmed intelligence that Somali pirates had secured Stinger missiles, citing sources from the Combined Forces Maritime Component Command based in Bahrain and Korean military attaches to embassies in the Middle East.
``We're aware that Somali insurgents have Stinger missiles, but the pirates don't at the moment as far as we know,'' the spokesman said. ``However, we will come up with proper countermeasures to thwart potential anti-aircraft attacks from the pirates in the mid- to long-term, including equipment modifications.''
The South Korean Navy operates 24 anti-submarine warfare versions of the Lynx, built by the U.K.-Italy joint venture AugustWestland.
The Navy wants to equip these with basic missile protection systems, such as flare launchers; infra-red guided missile countermeasure devices, nicknamed ``disco balls''; and radar warning receivers (RWR), according to a military source.
He said the manufacturer has shown its willingness to conduct modification work for the helicopters immediately even in Djibouti, where the Korean unit is based, if required.
``The best option is to fit required infra-red guided missile countermeasures systems to the Lynx helicopter as soon as possible,'' the source said. ``If not, we hope the modification work will be implemented for the second Cheonghae unit to be dispatched by September.''
A defense expert called on the JCS to take quick steps to protect South Korean sailors operating off the Somali coast.
``If the intelligence proves true, it's quite urgent to take measures to prevent our personnel being killed in a possible anti-air attack by pirates,'' the expert said, asking to remain anonymous. ``We can't exclude the possibility of a `Lynx down' situation similar to an incident where U.S. Black Hawk helicopters were shot down by Somali insurgents in the early 1990s.''
Since it was deployed in March, the 4,500-ton destroyer-based Korean naval contingent has shown one of the most outstanding anti-piracy performances among coalition forces operating off the coast of Somalia.
Since it began operations last month, the unit's Lnyx carrying sharpshooters has successfully rescued four foreign vessels, including a North Korean cargo ship, from the heavily-armed pirates.
The Somali pirates reportedly run sophisticated operations using high-tech equipment such as satellite phones, rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and GPS receivers.
They are known to receive information from contacts at ports in the Gulf of Aden and use speedboats with very powerful outboard motors to approach their targets.
Located along the route of a crude-oil pipeline connecting the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean and racked by civil war, Somalia's coastline has become infamous for piracy.
Each year, about 20,000 ships, including some 460 South Korean vessels, sail throughout the Gulf of Aden headed for the Suez Canal, an important shipping route for international trade that links Europe to the Middle East and Asia.
The International Maritime Organization counted 111 attacks in 2008 in the Arabian Sea near Somalia, the most notorious location for such activity.