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Feb 1, 2010 | 13:11 GMT

20 mins read

Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems: A Persistent and Potent Threat

Photo courtesy of U.S. Government
For more than three decades, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles have been used to attack civilian as well as military aircraft. While counterproliferation efforts worldwide have focused attention on the threat — and managed to contain it to some extent — these "man-portable air-defense systems" remain highly prized and sought-after by militant groups. This is because they provide a cheap, simple and reasonably effective way to bring down an airplane full of people. And while missile technology continues to be refined, counterproliferation efforts are being offset by arms transfers on the black and gray markets.

On Dec. 11, 2009, authorities seized an Ilyushin-76 cargo plane in Bangkok that contained 35 tons of North Korean-produced military weapons, including North Korean variants of the Chinese HN-5 "man-portable air-defense system," or MANPADS, which were being shipped to Iran. The HN-5 — a copy of the Soviet SA-7 (a first-generation MANPADS) — is less advanced than the MANPADS Iran produces on its own, which are based on later Chinese designs. So, the question was: Why would Iran be importing less advanced missiles? Or was Iran planning to provide North Korean missiles to proxy militant groups, thereby gaining plausible deniability in case the missiles were ever used or seized?

Iran has reportedly supplied MANPADS from a variety of sources to Hezbollah, the Islamic Courts Union of Somalia (forerunner of al Shabaab) and the Taliban. It is possible that the North Korean MANPADS were also bound for Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas or to other hostile actors as a way to retaliate against Western powers operating in the region who are opposed to Iran's nuclear program.

In any case, it is clear that the shipment of MANPADS, which have been used by militants to attack civilian airliners and are high on the list of counterproliferation efforts worldwide, was not an encouraging sign for the traveling public. Since 1973, at least 30 civilian aircraft have been brought down and approximately 920 civilians killed by MANPADS. While the number of such attempts declined in the last decade, militant groups are still trying hard to get their hands on the weapons, which are relatively cheap, easy to operate and provide a considerable amount of bang for the buck.

What They Are and How They Work

MANPADS are shoulder-fired, surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles that come in a variety of models. They were developed after the end of World War II, when U.S. military planners realized the need for a weapon that could provide better defense against attacks by aircraft flying at high speeds low to the ground. Machine guns simply did not have the effective range, accuracy or velocity to address such threats. In 1948, the U.S. Army began researching and developing a weapon that could be more effectively used by infantrymen against aircraft, but it was not until 1967 that the first shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile was fielded.

This was the U.S.-manufactured FIM-43 Redeye tactical missile. The Soviets soon followed with their SA-7 Grail (Strela-2) missiles, introduced in 1968, which borrowed heavily from the Redeye design. In 1972, the improved U.S.-manufactured Redeye II gave rise to the FIM-92 Stinger missile, which, like the Soviet SA-7s, has been updated many times over the years. The British introduced their Blowpipe MANPAD in 1972. In the years since, many more versions of the weapon have been developed by other countries.

By definition, MANPADS are designed to be man-portable. This means that the systems usually weigh about 40 pounds and are balanced on and fired from the shooter's shoulder. The missile is generally stored in and launched from a narrow tube that averages roughly five feet in length and about three inches in diameter. The system generally includes a battery and often an ejection motor. While the guidance mechanism within the missile itself can be quite complex, MANPADS are designed to be operated in the field from the front lines, so durability is an important part of the design. A simple targeting interface makes most MANPADS relatively easy to operate.

The Basic Components of the FIM-92 Stinger

MANPADS use a variety of guidance systems. The most common, perhaps, is infrared (IR) guidance, in which the missile seeks the hot exhaust from an aircraft's engine. Older models are relatively easy to decoy if the target is aware and equipped with flares. Newer IR models are more difficult to decoy. In the design of the original MANPADS, such as the SA-7 and the Redeye, the IR seeker had to have a relatively clear line of sight to the rear aspect of an aircraft and its exhaust, limiting the missile's engagement envelope considerably. Newer models have far more sophisticated and sensitive seekers, allowing them to be targeted and fired from a much wider area. Other guidance methods include command line-of-sight guidance, in which the operator uses a radio control to fly the missile into the target. A third type is laser-beam guidance, in which the operator guides the missile by pointing a laser at the target.

The warheads themselves weigh only a few pounds. Most are armed with a proximity fuse and employ both explosives and fragmentation to puncture the soft skin of an aircraft. Generally, the later the design the more lethal the warhead.

Usefulness as a Weapon

MANPADS are also very cost-effective. They can be bought on the black market for prices as low as $5,000 (for an old SA-7). A new third-generation missile, like the Russian SA-16, can cost anywhere from $40,000 to several hundred thousand dollars. Performance varies considerably by type. The SA-7 has a kill zone with an upper limit of 4,290 feet, while some newer models can reach altitudes of over 12,000 feet. The average range of MANPADS is about three miles. As for the vulnerability of large commercial aircraft, which generally cruise at around 30,000 feet, the weapon is most effective during the takeoff and landing portions of a flight, or when aircraft are operating at lower altitudes.

MANPADS are not without limitations. Some research suggests that battery life makes the weapon obsolete after about 22 years. Missiles treated roughly, stored poorly and not maintained well may not last anywhere close to that long. Nevertheless, the two SA-7s al Qaeda used to target an Israeli civilian flight over Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002 were 28 years old and fully functional (despite the fact that they did not hit their target). Since replacement batteries can be found on the black market, battery life is not necessarily a key limiting factor.

Perhaps the most limiting factor has to do with the kind of aircraft being targeted. As MANPADS were developed and refined for military use, so were countermeasures for military aircraft. Due to budget constraints, however, most commercial airliners do not have these defensive military systems, which can alert a pilot that a missile has been launched so proper action can be taken, including evasive maneuvers and the deployment of IR flares to decoy the missile or lasers to blind the seeker. Industry estimates indicate that outfitting and maintaining the entire U.S. airline fleet with countermeasures that could foil missiles would cost $40 billion.

One airline company that does have countermeasures on all of its aircraft is Israel's small state-owned airline El Al. Similar countermeasures were likely responsible for thwarting the previously mentioned al Qaeda attempt in 2002 to down the Israeli airliner (owned and operated by a different Israeli carrier) taking off from Mombasa. The missiles missed their target, and neither the plane nor its passengers were harmed. Because of the high cost of such defensive systems, however, the bulk of the civilian aviation fleet worldwide remains undefended and vulnerable to MANPADS.

Use in War Zones

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union were very generous in providing MANPADS to their allies and proxies. The Soviets armed the North Vietnamese with SA-7s, and the United States gave about 900 Stingers to Afghan mujahideen fighters who, between 1986 and 1989, used them against the Soviets. MANPADS alone are credited with downing an estimated 269 Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan during that period.

Since their introduction in the late 1960s, MANPADS have most often been used against military targets in active war zones, especially in Vietnam in the early 1970s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, Angola during its civil war from 1975 to 2002 and in the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s. In fact, 80 percent of U.S. aircraft lost in Operation Desert Storm were reportedly downed by MANPADS. In May 2002, al Qaeda operatives tried unsuccessfully to shoot down a U.S. fighter jet with an SA-7 as the jet took off from Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. More recently, coalition aircraft in Iraq have come under fire from insurgents armed with shoulder-fired missiles, including a C-130 cargo plane in 2006 that was carrying four members of the U.S. House of Representatives. Onboard countermeasures enabled the military aircraft to successfully evade what was thought to have been an SA-18 missile. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also used shoulder-fired missiles in their war against the Sri Lankan government, and Chechen rebels have successfully employed them in the Caucasus against Russian military aircraft.

Civilian Attack History

The first known cases of attempted MANPADS attacks against civilian aircraft were in 1973 in Rome. In both January and September of that year, Black September militants attempted to strike Israeli flights, one of which was carrying then-Prime Minister Golda Meir. Both attempts were thwarted in their final minutes. In the January case involving Meir's plane, the militants were positioned around the airport with the weapons but were caught before her plane touched down. In the second attempt, police raided the militants' apartment as the militants, who had positioned themselves outside on the balcony, prepared to shoot at the plane as it taxied down the runway.

Two years later, the first successful MANPADS attack against a civilian aircraft came in the form of an SA-7 missile launched by North Vietnamese forces against a Douglas C-54D Air Vietnam flight, resulting in the deaths of all 26 passengers and crew members. One of the most famous civilian MANPADS attacks was in 1994, when two SA-16s were used to shoot down a Rwandan government flight whose passengers (and victims) included the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. This event sparked the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in approximately 800,000 deaths in 100 days. (The identity of those responsible for this attack remains a matter of debate.) Over the years, MANPADS attacks have been plotted and actively attempted in at least 20 countries, resulting in more than 900 civilian fatalities.

Not a Magic Weapon

A MANPADS attack does not necessarily mean certain death for an air crew and passengers. In fact, some civilian airliners hit by MANPADS have made emergency landings without loss of human life. In November 2004, a DHL Airbus 300 on a mail delivery flight had just departed Baghdad International Airport. At about 8,000 feet in altitude, the aircraft was struck in the left wing by a shoulder-fired missile. With the aircraft badly damaged and one engine on fire, the pilot was able to maneuver the plane by engine thrust alone and land it safely.

MANPADS Attacks Against Civilian Aircraft

Indeed, it is important to remember that the nature of MANPADS severely limits the size of the warhead that the weapon can carry. Designed to destroy low-flying military aircraft menacing troops in the field and densely packed with small amounts of fuel and ordnance, MANPADS are not ideally suited for bringing down large civilian aircraft. Though airliners are hardly designed to absorb a missile strike, the damage a single MANPADS can inflict may not be catastrophic. Nearly 30 percent of planes struck by MANPADS have managed to make some sort of emergency or crash landing without loss of life, despite (in many cases) sustaining significant structural damage to the aircraft.

Still, the threat is not insignificant. The other 70 percent of civilian planes that have been hit by MANPADS have crashed, and with considerable loss of life. Indeed, on departure from or approach to an airport, airliners do have to traverse predictable airspace at low altitudes — well within the engagement envelope of MANPADS. These lower level phases of flight also occur over large swaths of built-up urban terrain that would be impossible to search and secure — even temporarily. And with these flight paths so well established, even casual observers generally have a sense of when and where large, low-flying aircraft can be found at any given time over their city.

MANPADS Proliferation

It is estimated that more than one million MANPADS have been produced by at least 25 countries since the weapon was introduced in the late 1960s. According to a 2004 estimate by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 500,000 to 750,000 of these weapons are still in existence today, some 6,000 of which are believed to be in the hands of hostile non-state actors.

Indeed, militants will always try to illegally acquire weapons of all kinds, and MANPADS are no different. As early as 1974, the Irish Republican Army received Russian SA-7s, said to have been smuggled in by the Libyans in diplomatic pouches. The old SA-7, believed to be the most widely proliferated and copied of the MANPADS, has shown up in Taliban caves and al Qaeda safe houses in Afghanistan. Russian international arms trafficker Viktor Bout (aka the "Merchant of Death") was arrested in March 2008 for attempting to sell 100 MANPADS to undercover agents whom he mistakenly believed were representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). He had previously supplied arms to such diverse groups as the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, Hezbollah and various militant groups in Africa.

MANPADS Attacks Against Civilian Aircraft Since 1973

The cargo plane seized in Bangkok in December 2009 exemplifies the murky maze of the international arms trade through which MANPADS make their way from governments to militants. Reports indicate that it was a very complex arms-laundering scheme, involving dealers in five countries. The main player behind the scheme was allegedly a Kazakh arms dealer named Alexander Zykov, who claimed that the five crewmen on the cargo plane — four Kazakhs and a Belarusian — usually worked for him but were under the employ of someone else for this particular flight.

The plane took off from Baku, Azerbaijan, and made stops in Al Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and in Bangkok before reaching Pyongyang, where it acquired its cargo of weapons on Dec. 10 before returning to Bangkok. The weapons, destined for Mehrabad Airport in Tehran, were listed on the cargo manifest as "oil industry spare parts." If the airplane had not been seized in Bangkok, it would have continued on to Sri Lanka, the UAE, Ukraine and then to Iran, where it would have off-loaded the weapons. The United Nations has banned North Korea from exporting weapons, and the United States reportedly tipped off Thai authorities about the questionable cargo on the flight.

The trail of MANPADS through the gray and black arms markets is very difficult to trace. Many of these weapons are sold, traded or given away several times over, for ideological or financial reasons, often ending up in the hands of militants. In the case of the two SA-7s used in the attack over Mombasa in 2002, the launchers were produced in Russia in 1978; the missiles themselves were made in Bulgaria in 1993 and sold to Yemen in 1994. From there, they made their way to Somalia, possibly via Eritrea, and on to Kenya where they were used unsuccessfully against the Israeli airliner. The SA-18 missile used to down a Belarusian cargo plane over Somalia in 2007 was manufactured in Russia in 1995. It was one of a batch of SA-18s sent from Russia to Eritrea, some of which were "turned over" to al Shabaab militants in Somalia. Al Shabaab then used the SA-18 against the cargo plane as it departed Mogadishu, killing 11 people.

At least nine currently active non-state militant groups, based on credible media reports, are believed to possess MANPADS. There are more than a dozen other groups, such as FARC, that have been working hard to obtain them and probably have, though there is no evidence that they now have them in their arsenals. It is difficult to know if a group really possesses MANPADS unless they use them and the remnants are recovered and linked to the group. Also, given the nature of the black and gray arms market and the roughness with which the weapons are often handled and stored by non-state actors, the functionality of the missiles reportedly in a group's possession is impossible to assess. The following militant groups are reported to possess MANPADS:

Many militant groups have used MANPADS against civilian aircraft since the first attempt in 1973. Some of these groups, such as the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and Baader Meinhof, are no longer active while other groups, such as al Qaeda and al Shabaab, currently pose a threat. Al Qaeda's unsuccessful use of MANPADS in 2002 against the Israeli airliner over Mombasa was a failure likely caused by countermeasures on the targeted aircraft rather than shooter error or technical malfunction. The most recent MANPADS attack that resulted in loss of life was the strike by al Shabaab over Somalia in 2007 against the Belarusian cargo plane.

Counterproliferation Efforts

The threat from MANPADS has not been ignored. In December 2000, 33 countries (the number currently stands at 40) signed the Wassenaar Arrangement, a non-binding agreement to sell or transfer MANPADS only to other governments (who may not necessarily be a party to the agreement) and only after determining that the buying country would use the weapons only for legitimate military purposes.

The United States has made a concerted effort to secure, buy back or destroy MANPADS that lie in loosely guarded arsenals of various countries. In Afghanistan, after the Soviet-mujahideen conflict, the United States deceptively shipped replacement batteries to the mujahideen that were, in fact, designed not only to not work but also to short out the weapons' electronics system and render them ineffective. In Afghanistan in the 1990s and later in Iraq, the United States bought MANPADS from anyone who would turn them in.

The U.S. institutions most actively involved in MANPADS counterproliferation efforts are the State Department's Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement and Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction, along with the various offices at the Defense Department that administer the Golden Sentry program. This program monitors international sales of MANPADS to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of non-state actors.

Multilateral counterproliferation efforts also have been undertaken, including an agreement by G-8 members at the Evian Summit in 2003 to ban all transfers of MANPADS to non-governmental entities and to assist other countries as needed in the securing or destroying of their MANPADS arsenals. Other international organizations that have taken multilateral steps to counter the MANPADS threat are the Organization of American States, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Since 2001, with assistance from other countries, the United States has destroyed 30,000 MANPADS in more than 25 countries that have asked for assistance in counterproliferation efforts. These countries include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Chad, Cyprus, Liberia, Nicaragua, Sudan, Ukraine and various countries in the Balkans where there was thought to be an excess number of weapons that were poorly controlled or in danger of being sent elsewhere. For fiscal year 2009, the United States appropriated $47 million for use in destroying "at-risk" weapons (those that are in excess, are not adequately guarded or are obsolete), including MANPADS. The 2010 budget proposal called for nearly twice that amount.

Of course, not all of the remaining 6,000 loose MANPADS are likely to be functional, which depends on when they were made and how well they have been stored and maintained. However, MANPADS are designed to be used and stored in rough conditions, so many of the loose weapons probably do still work. Moreover, even as some of the older MANPADS become dysfunctional, various MANPADS-producing countries are still distributing them to hostile actors through illegal transfers and the gray market (MANPADS-producing countries noticeably absent from the Wassenaar Arrangement are China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Singapore and Vietnam).

The Current Threat

From 2000 through 2009, attempts to use MANPADS against civilian airliners were down about 66 percent compared to the previous decade. Despite the decline in the number of attacks, however, the proliferation of MANPADS among non-state actors remains a problem, as shown by the following incidents:

  • May 2009: Four men in New York were arrested for plotting to shoot down a U.S. military cargo plane with a fake Stinger they had acquired from undercover agents.
  • June 2009: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security canceled Delta's inaugural flight from Atlanta to Nairobi over concerns of a MANPADS attack.
  • July 2009: It was revealed that a FARC commander was negotiating with Venezuelan contacts to obtain Russian SA-24s that Caracas had recently acquired from Moscow.
  • August 2009: A Syrian arms trafficker was extradited to the United States for selling SA-7s to undercover agents posing as FARC representatives. The missiles were being housed in a Hezbollah warehouse in Mexico.
  • September 2009: During national elections in Germany, German airports were on heightened alert after intelligence information raised concerns of an al Qaeda-linked MANPADS attack against civilian aircraft.
  • October 2009: An unconfirmed press report indicated that Hezbollah was in possession of Iranian-produced MANPADS (though, as noted previously, Hezbollah has had MANPADS in its arsenal for some time).
  • November 2009: A U.S. indictment charged several people with conspiring to send Stingers from Philadelphia to Syria and Hezbollah.
  • December 2009: Another unconfirmed press report stated that Hezbollah was buying MANPADS from Albania.
  • January 2010: A Spanish judge revealed that the Basque separatist militant group ETA had unsuccessfully tried to shoot down the Spanish prime minister's plane with a shoulder-fired missile in 2001.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that MANPADS in the hands of a militant group do not necessarily mean the weapons will be used against civilian airliners. FARC, for example, which reportedly possesses MANPADS, does occasionally shoot down government anti-drug airplanes flying low over the jungle canopy. But FARC, like certain other militant groups, has no vested interest in shooting down a civilian airliner and dealing with the international fallout, especially as it works to strengthen its international ties. FARC has the capability but not the intent.

Other groups like al Qaeda, which has used MANPADS before, have the capability and the intent, if not often the opportunity. Since 9/11, al Qaeda prime has been relegated to the tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistani border, far removed from the lower-altitude approach and departure paths that put Western airliners within MANPADS range. Although al Qaeda's last known MANPADS attack against a civilian aircraft was unsuccessful (over Mombasa in 2002), a MANPADS in the hands of a lone-wolf jihadist or a grass-roots al Qaeda franchise group such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula remains a significant concern. The 50 attempts and successful attacks that have occurred since 1973 testify to this ongoing threat.

Thus, while the international community has made strides in its counterproliferation efforts, civilian aircraft will remain vulnerable to MANPADS as long as some nations continue to export the weapons to hostile actors and as long as the weapons can be obtained from arms traffickers or on the gray and black markets. And although certain defensive measures are being taken by the airlines, nearly all civilian carriers have not sufficiently equipped their airplanes to effectively evade anti-aircraft missiles. It is important to keep in mind that, once successful, terrorist tactics are usually refined and employed again. Although the first successful MANPADS strike against an airliner was conducted by units of the uniformed North Vietnamese Army and not a non-state actor, the lessons from that strike and the many that have followed are not lost on militants, who are nothing if not adaptive. The MANPADS threat may have lessened over the last 10 years, but it will undoubtedly continue into the foreseeable future.

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