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"Proliferation of MANPADS and the threat to civil aviation"

Wednesday, August 13, 2003

Proliferation of MANPADS and the threat to civil aviation
Jane's Terrorism Intelligence Center

The threat to civil aviation from manportable air defence systems (MANPADS)
was illustrated in last November's failed attack on an Israeli airliner
departing Kenya's Mombasa airport. As JTIC noted at the time, the attack was
not an isolated incident - terrorists have targeted airliners using MANPADS
and other stand-off weapons since the 1970s. Thomas Withington looks at the
illicit proliferation of MANPADS and the likelihood of their further use by
the world's terrorist and insurgent groups. 

The missile attack on an Israeli Arkia Airlines Boeing 757-300 on November
28 provided a stark illustration of the threat posed to civil aviation from
terrorists armed with MANPADS. The use of two Russian SA-7 (aka K32M
'Strela-2') MANPADS demonstrated that the proliferation of such weapons is
still a major cause of concern. 

The Mombasa attack is, of course, not the first time terrorists have
targeted civil aviation with MANPADS - such weapons have been used to down
civilian aircraft as far afield as Africa, South America, the Balkans and

Proliferation of MANPADS 

It is now believed that MANPADS form part of the arsenal of weapons
available to almost 30 insurgent and terrorist groups worldwide, their
apparent proliferation on the black market making them relatively easy and,
depending on the model in question, cheap to acquire. 

In December last year, International Security Assistance Force troops in
Afghanistan were reportedly offered FIM-92A `Stinger' MANPADS at a cost of
US$250,000 each. The Stinger was widely distributed by the CIA among rebel
Mujahideen groups fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan during the
1980s, and proved lethal against both fixed- and rotary-wing targets. Given
the weapon's record against agile military aircraft - at least 270 confirmed
kills - the threat that such an advanced system poses to much slower civil
aviation is obvious. Conservative estimates state that at least 100 such
missiles are still in the country out of around 900 originally supplied. 

The Stinger's reputation as an effective anti-aircraft weapon obscures the
fact that many other far more numerous types of MANPAD are available to
terrorists, most of which are likely to prove equally as great a threat to
civil aviation in the correct circumstances. 

The problem of proliferation is exacerbated by weapons such as the SA-7,
which is built under licence in several countries. Furthermore, systems like
the SA-7 are significantly cheaper to purchase on the black market than
Western MANPADS such as Stinger. Prices for an SA-7 missile can be as low as
US$5,000. Sadly, the sheer numbers of MANPADS produced by Soviet-bloc states
during the Cold War has made it very difficult to produce an accurate
assessment of how many weapons may be available. One estimate talks of `tens
of thousands' of SA-7 missiles in circulation. 

At first glance, the proliferation of MANPADS seems to create a nightmarish
vision in which all civilian aircraft are threatened by, and defenceless
from, such weapons. However, their use against a civilian aircraft is not as
simple as the `fire-and-forget' catchphrase earned by the Stinger would
suggest. During the attack in Kenya, the fact that the missiles failed to
strike suggests operator inexperience or a fault in the missile's guidance
system. Reports have also circulated that the Israeli aircraft may have been
fitted with anti-missile countermeasures.

Hitting the target is made more difficult by MANPADS requiring the operator
to track the target while manually directing the missile's flight - so
called `command-to-line-of-sight' weapons. The British Army learnt these
limitations during the Falklands War in 1982 when using the `Blowpipe'
MANPADS. Even Stinger, widely thought to be one of the easiest MANPADS to
operate, has its limitations. The CIA experienced considerable difficulty
teaching the basics of such a weapon to the Mujahideen, many of whom were

The operator must take ground `clutter' into account when firing a
heat-seeking MANPADS. If some missiles are fired too close to the ground,
they can be distracted by other heat sources. One complaint allegedly voiced
about the SA-7 by Mujahedin in Afghanistan was that when fired, the missiles
would occasionally fly towards the sun rather than the target aircraft.
Furthermore, some MANPADS, including the SA-7, leave a visible, white vapour
trail which can easily betray the position of the launcher.

Range to target is also an important consideration. The closer the range,
the less opportunity the missile will have to correct its flightpath if
ground clutter, countermeasures, or other 'distractions' result in a
temporary loss of target acquisition. Therefore, launching the weapon from
very close range does not necessarily guarantee a hit. 

Even if the missile finds its target, there is no guarantee that it will be
destroyed, especially if the target is a large commercial airliner. Building
regulations for aircraft jet engines insist that the engine is surrounded by
an armoured envelope to contain the core during an explosion. The problem of
achieving a hit after the first launch is aggravated by modern `high-bypass'
airliner engines, which have a much cooler exhaust than the high-performance
military jets or helicopters.

However, there are many attractions for attacking a civilian airliner with
MANPADS. Firstly, because of the ranges of MANPADS (between 500 - 5,500
metres for the SA-7; and 1,000m - 8,000m for the Stinger) an operative can
be stationed some distance from the airport and away from its security
staff. A successful attack by a MANPADS against a civilian airliner flying
into or out of a city could have the added impact of causing heavy,
secondary casualties on the ground. Whilst some experts point to the finite
`self-life' of MANPADS missiles, a technically proficient terrorist group
would probably be able to replace perishable components, such as the battery
for the electronic systems, with home-made equivalents. The life of the
missiles is enhanced as they are shipped in sealed containers designed to
protect the missile when it is deployed in the field. It has been said that
under ideal conditions, the lifespan of some MANPADS missiles can extend to
over 20 years.

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