MANPADS at a Glance

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Contact: Daryl Kimball, executive director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) are surface-to-air missiles that can be fired by an individual or a small team of people against aircraft. These weapon systems often are described as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. The United States and the Soviet Union first deployed MANPADS—the Redeye and Strela systems respectively—in the 1960s to provide their infantries with portable anti-aircraft weapons. Since their introduction, more than 20 states have manufactured an estimated one million MANPADS for national stockpiles or export. At least 102 countries have or have had MANPADS in their arsenals. In the early 2000s, the US government estimated that approximately 500,000-750,000 MANPADS remain in stockpiles around the world, though it is difficult to estimate the number of operable systems.

Three general types of MANPADS exist: command line of sight, laser guided, and infra-red seekers. Command line-of-sight MANPADS are guided to their targets through the use of a remote control. Laser-guided or laser beam rider MANPADS follow a laser projected onto the target. The most common MANPADS, frequently called heat seeking missiles, however, are infrared seekers that acquire their target by detecting the heat of an aircraft’s engine. They are considered the easiest to operate and include the Soviet-era Strela, and Igla weapons which was fielded after the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as the U.S. Stinger. Today average MANPADS can reach a target from a distance of 3.2 miles, which means commercial aircraft are most vulnerable during periods of takeoff and landing.

Although MANPADS production was originally limited to a few states, including the U.S., U.K., Russia, and China, today over 30 countries manufacture MANPADS. Major MANPADS-producing states today include China, France, Russia, Sweden, the U.K., and the U.S.

MANPADS Proliferation

Despite the global campaign to counter the illicit proliferation of MANPADS, the Small Arms Survey has identified reports of illicit MANPADS in over 32 countries and territories since 2011. These reports include the imagery of dozens of advanced systems acquired by non-state actors including Russian proxies in Ukraine prior to Russia’s 2022 invasion and ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. Although the vast majority of MANPADS are in national stockpiles, terrorists and other non-state actors have acquired the anti-aircraft missiles through deliberate transfers, the black market, or theft.

The U.S. supply of Stingers to anti-Soviet Afghan fighters during the 1980s is an example of how MANPADS can spread. Between 1986 and 1989, Afghan forces used missiles to down an estimated 269 aircraft and helicopters. Many Stingers, however, remained unaccounted for after the conflict despite U.S. efforts to have unused missiles returned to U.S. control. Some of the missiles made it into the international black market and the hands of terrorists. Estimates of black market prices for MANPADS range from just a few hundred dollars for basic technology models to thousands for more advanced units.

The Soviet Union supplied its allies with MANPADS and apparently, some were re-transferred to non-state actors or stolen. Libya reportedly shipped Soviet-supplied MANPADS to at least the Irish Republican Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Numerous reports claim significant MANPADS looting from insecure military stores of the Soviet Union after its 1991 collapse. Similarly, after U.S.-led military forces in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein and his regime from power, as many as Soviet designed 4,000 MANPADS went missing from Iraqi military holdings.

MANPADs were discovered in use in recent conflicts in Libya, the Gaza Strip, and Syria. Iran has been accused of smuggling weapons, including MANPADS, into other countries in the region to armed insurgents. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta commented to the Wall Street Journal, “There is no question when you start passing MANPADS around, that becomes a threat, not just to military aircraft but to civilian aircraft. That is an escalation.”

After the Libyan civil war, many feared that weapons from the Gaddafi regime may have been smuggled out of the country during the conflict to other countries in the region and into the hands of armed groups or terrorist units. At the end of the war, 5,000 MANPADS left from the Gaddafi regime were located and destroyed by a multinational team, though some reports suggest that the regime was in possession of significant MANPADS and missile components , most of which remain unaccounted for.

During the November 2012 skirmish between Israel and the Gaza Strip Hamas released a video displaying its possession of MANPADS. A cable by Israeli Defense Intelligence also claimed Hamas possessed SA-7 MANPADS among other MANPADS. It is also suspected the smuggled Libyan MANPADS were transported into Mali and acquired by insurgents in that country.

In May 2017, Reuters reported that Venezuela possesses around 5,000 Russian-made SA-24 MANPADS (also known as Igla-S), which is the largest known stockpile in Latin America. The late President Hugo Chavez obtained the weapons during his tenure from 1999 to 2013 from Russia.

The Threat to Civil Aviation

The first successful MANPADS attack against a civilian aircraft occurred Sept. 3, 1978, when rebels of the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolution Army brought down Air Rhodesia Flight 825. The MANPADS attack with arguably the most severe consequences was the 1994 downing of a plane carrying the leaders of Rwanda and Burundi.

More than 50 MANPADS attacks against civilian aircraft have occurred, mostly in Africa and Asia. Aircraft are most vulnerable after take-off, during the initial climbing period, and while gaining altitude when the planes are at slow speeds and in regular flight patterns. Some thirty attacks have been fatal and have resulted in almost 1,000 civilian deaths. Most attacks against civilian plans occurred within active war zones. Fifty-nine non-state armed groups are confirmed to possess or suspected to possess MANPADS according to a 2019 RAND Corporation study. While there has never been a MANPADS attack on a U.S. civilian plane, the estimated consequences of terrorists shooting down a U.S. airliner are severe. A 2005 RAND Corporation study projected that the direct costs of such an attack would approach $1 billion. The indirect economic costs, according to the study, would soar much higher. For example, if all U.S. airports stopped operating for one week after the attack, losses could climb past $3 billion. Depressed demand to fly in the following months could result in losses totaling up to $12 billion. In sum, RAND concluded that one anti-aircraft missile purchased for as little as a few thousand dollars on the black market could kill hundreds of people and cause economic damage exceeding $16 billion. The costs could be even higher if consumers shunned flying or airports remained closed for a long period.

Efforts to Reduce the MANPADS Threat

The U.S. government is pursuing three main strategies to prevent MANPADS proliferation and protect civilian aircraft: stiffening global export controls and transparency, funding MANPADS stockpile security and destruction worldwide, and researching defensive countermeasures.

Some countries exercise poor accounting and security of their MANPADS, making them vulnerable to theft. Aiming to mitigate this problem, the State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement and the Department of Defense’s Threat Reduction Agency operate programs to help foreign governments destroy excess weapons and improve the protection of their missile stockpiles. The State Department claims these programs “ have helped partner nations destroy nearly 41,000 excess, obsolete, or at-risk MANPADS and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, including over 28,000 in the OSCE region” as of April 2021. In her 2021 address at the OSCE, Karen Chandler, Director of the U.S. Interagency MANPADS Task Force, highlighted that since 1973, 65 incidents involving the use of MANPADS on civilian aircraft have killed over 1,000 civilians.

The prospect of terrorists using MANPADS to attack U.S. airliners has led to some calls for equipping civilian airliners with defensive countermeasures, such as onboard lasers to confuse infra-red seeking missiles. Multiple versions of these counter-MANPADS technologies exist, such as the MANTA (acronym for MANPADS Threat Avoidance), a “multi-spectral multi-band high-energy laser-based system” that can counter several MANPADS attacks simultaneously, though the system is bulky and only suitable for certain types of planes. Other examples of active countermeasures include missile approach warning systems, flares, decoys, infrared countermeasure systems, and high-energy lasers. More behavioral safety precautions against MANPADS include improved pilot training on surviving a MANPADS hit on an aircraft, better airport security, and improved stockpile safeguards although when a MANPADS hits an aircraft, it does not necessarily result in bringing down the plane.

Technologies are available to attempt to reduce the threat of MANPADS. These include infrared decoy flares that can confuse infrared seekers on the weapons. Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCMs) cause the missile’s seeker to misread the location of the aircraft and miss its target. Missile warning systems (MWS) can alert an aircraft of an incoming missile which would make them useful when paired with a laser or flare system. However, some studies have concluded that current available anti-MANPADS countermeasures would take years to install, cost upwards of $1-4 million per plane, and may be ineffective against next-generation MANPADS given technological advancement.