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MANPADS at a Glance
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Contact: Daryl Kimball, Executive Director, (202) 463-8270 x107

Updated: March 2013

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. The US government estimates 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, 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, as well as the U.S. Stinger. Today average MANPADS can reach a target from a distance of 3 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. The most commonly produced MANPADS are the Soviet SA-7 and the U.S. Stinger.

MANPADS Proliferation

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. All told, the Department of State estimates that as many as several thousand MANPADS exist outside state control, including in the hands of al Qaeda. Exacerbating the proliferation concern is the very long shelf-life of MANPADS, which can remain functional for up to twenty years.

The U.S. supply of Stingers to anti-Soviet Afghan fighters during the 1980s illustrates how MANPADS spread. Between 1986 and 1989, Afghan forces used the 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 problem is not confined to U.S.-origin missiles. 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 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, like al Qaeda in the Magrheb, Hamas in Gaza, Boko Haram in Niger, or Syrian insurgents. 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 over 20,000, 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. These were likely smuggled into Gaza from Libya after the end of the civil war. It also suspected the smuggled Libyan MANPADS were transported into Mali and used by insurgents in that country.

In the Syrian civil war, video and photographic evidence proved rebel opposition forces possessed SA-16 and SA-7 MANPADs for targeting the aircraft of al-Assad’s government forces. Rebels acquired at least 40 MANPADS through captured government military stockpiles and international smuggling, including from Qatar, in their efforts to drive out the regime.

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 shot down Air Rhodesia Flight 825. The MANPADS attack with arguably the most severe consequences was the 1994 downing of a plane carrying the leaders ofRwanda and Burundi. That attack helped precipitate a war that killed more than 800,000 Rwandans; conflict in the region continues. More recently, in 2002, al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists in Mombassa, Kenya, fired two MANPADS at an Arkia Israel Airlines plane. Both missiles missed, but the act marked the first attack on a civilian airliner outside a conflict zone.

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.  Since 1998, an estimated 47 non-state groups are thought to be in control of MANPADS systems. 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.

Although the United States had been promoting new MANPADS security and export controls since 1998, the 2002 Mombassa attack galvanized U.S. efforts. In 2003, governments added MANPADS exports and imports to the list of weapons transactions that should be volunteered annually by states to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. That same year, the voluntary Wassenaar Arrangement (WA), a group of arms suppliers that seeks to coordinate their export controls, agreed to strengthen export procedures governing MANPADS transfers and urged governments to equip newly-manufactured systems with safety devices to prevent unauthorized use. Today the WA includes 41 participating states. Other international institutions, such as the Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, have also focused more attention on strengthening MANPADS controls and stockpile security. A number of OCSE country plans have included destruction of MANPADS stockpiles as a priority.

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 protection of their missile stockpiles. The State Department claims these programs have destroyed approximately 32,500 MANPADS in over 30 countries since 2003, amounting to about 5-10% of the total world inventory.

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, offset decoys, infrared countermeasure systems, and high-energy lasers.  The estimated cost of outfitting all U.S. airline planes with antimissile technologies would exceed $40 billion. This high cost is so prohibitive that the majority of civilian planes around the world do not have countermeasures and are thus vulnerable to attack. 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.  While a MANPADS hit on an aircraft does not necessarily result in bringing down the plane, nearly 70% of recorded attacks on civilian planes caused crashes and fatalities.

New 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. 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 likely be ineffective against next-generation MANPADS given technological advancement. A solution that might be available in future MANPADS technology would be including GPS chips in the weapons that could be used to only allow activation of the weapon with a certain code or automatic disablement in the presence of U.S. or allied aircraft to prevent misuse of MANPADS in the wrong hands.

-Updated by Alexandra Schmitt

Posted: March 14, 2013