MANPADS: the threat below

Last updated 24 Sep 14 @ 16:01 |
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Following the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 over Ukraine, James Milnes argues we must not forget the wider terrorist threat to commercial aviation from shoulder-launched missile systems


Following the tragic downing of over Ukraine, the spectre of civilian aircraft being “shot out of the sky” has been brought sharply into focus. While this incident, which claimed 271 innocent lives, involved a highly capable Russian Air Defence System – BUK or SA-11 – and took place over a “war-zone”, the reality is that other more prevalent weapons are available to terrorist organisations which could inflict similar damage and casualties: MANPADS.

Man-portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS) are surface-to-air missiles that can be fired by individuals or small teams against aircraft. First deployed in the 1960s by the US and Russia, their technologies and capabilities have been under continuous development. Current estimates of global MANPAD stockpiles are between 500,000 and 750,000 systems, although the number of operational systems is much harder to predict as storage conditions and consumable availability are unknown variables.

MANPADS can be split into three generic groups: command line-of-sight, laser guided, and infra-red seekers. Command line-of-sight systems utilise remote control to hit their targets, while laser-guided systems follow a laser that illuminates the target. But the most prevalent and easy-to-use are infrared seekers, which lock-on to the heat signature of an aircraft’s engine. These include the Soviet-era Strela and Igla weapons, as well as the US Stinger.

The first successful use of a MANPAD against a civilian aircraft took place on 3 September 1978 against Air Rhodesia flight 825, which was shot down by rebels from the Zimbabwe Peoples Revolution Army (ZIPRA) using a Soviet-made Striela-2. The heat-seeking missile caused catastrophic damage to the right hand engine, which forced the jet to make an emergency “belly landing” in a cotton field. An unseen ditch caused the jet to cartwheel, killing 38 of the 56 passengers and crew. ZIPRA rebels followed up the crash, rounding up ten more of the survivors and massacring them with automatic fire. Three passengers survived by hiding in the bush, while the remaining five survived as they had gone for water before the rebels arrived. Flight 825 was on the last leg of a routine flight when it was shot down. Five months later, Air Rhodesia Flight 827 was shot down in almost identical circumstances.

MANPADS have been a concern to both military and civilian aviation security experts for many years now. Over the past ten years or so, security experts have acknowledged that MANPADS are likely to become a more practical weapon of choice for terrorists, as governments and airlines tighten other airplane and airport security measures. The most recently available study (RAND 2005) estimated the cost of a successful missile attack to be approximately $1bn for every aircraft downed (in the US) with an indirect economic impact of $3bn during a one-week shutdown of the US aviation system. Long-range losses could increase to $12bn per attack, if the public subsequently became reluctant to fly. This does not even begin to take account of the loss of lives in the air and on the ground if an attack was successfully prosecuted.

MANPADS have been used by rebel and insurgent fighters in many of the more recent conflicts, including Libya, the Gaza Strip and Syria. Internet videos and photographs demonstrate that many MANPADS are ending up in the wrong hands and are being utilised with reasonable success. At this point in time, most of the MANPAD events have taken place in war-zones over Africa, Asia and Middle East. But the availability and continued proliferation of missile systems remains a significant threat that requires the attention of all aviation security experts. Prior to the fall of Libya, specialist UK and US advisors were deployed to “mop-up” the 20,000 or so suspected MANPAD systems that were purportedly held by the regime as the forces loyal to Gaddafi retreated. In all, the advisors managed to retrieve around 5,000 systems, leaving a significant proportion unaccounted for, as many locations had been stripped before the advisors arrived. It is suspected that most of the systems were looted and passed on to terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Hamas in Gaza, Boko Haram in Niger and to Syrian insurgents. In the early part of 2014, a 26-page photocopied document dubbed “The Dummies Guide To MANPADS” was found in a building in Timbuktu in Northern Mali. The building was known to have been used by AQ operatives during the eight-month period between April 2012 to February 2013. More recently, (August 2014) a report by the Swiss Small Arms Survey Research Group indicated that a significant number of highly sophisticated systems have been taken by terrorist groups in Syria, thereby imposing an immediate threat to both military and civilian aircraft within the region. Reports from the Israeli Air Force also corroborate this report, as they indicate that military jets flying close to Syrian and Lebanon borders have deployed countermeasures on every mission. The MANPAD systems are highly sophisticated Russian and Chinese-made variants, and are probably IGLA S (SA-24) and QW-1 respectively. The Mali find and Israeli Air Force reports of countermeasure deployment provides strong evidence to suggest that terror organisations have the means, the will and the capability to utilise MANPADS.

Additionally, thousands of MANPADS remain on the black market. Weighing less than 40 pounds and measuring less than five feet long, MANPADS are readily available worldwide and can be purchased for under US$5,000. They are easy to use and, with the appropriate training and intent to use them, they present a credible and serious threat to commercial aviation. The UK has recently increased its measure of international terrorism threat from Moderate to Severe, meaning a terrorist attack is highly likely. While an attack can come in all shapes and sizes, the shooting down of a commercial airliner coupled with a Mumbai-style assault in central London would certainly make the headlines.

All aircraft, especially commercial airliners, are most vulnerable during takeoff, throughout the initial climb-out period, while at slow speeds in regular flight patterns and during the landing phase. There are many ways in which to counter the MANPAD threat, but it requires a multi agency approach, including intelligence services, aircrew, air traffic controllers and security staff, to form a cohesive response to a potential event. The potential threat footprint and ground area to be covered is vast and complex, requiring multiple stakeholders “buy-in” in order to achieve a successful counter-MANPAD plan.

Over the past decade, organisations have deployed forces in support of foreign airports within the “high MANPAD threat” zone in order to provide specialist advice on security measures to manage the threat accordingly. The simple solution would be to fit all aircraft with counter-MANPAD systems that have the capability to detect and deflect a locked-on missile. Sadly, the cost of fitting all airliners with countermeasures is significant, and as the countermeasures improve so does the technology to defeat them. Is now the time for governments and commercial aviation organisations to rethink their policies on the requirement for all commercial airliners to be fitted with MANPAD countermeasures? Who will be held accountable should an airliner be shot down over Western airspace? The governments? The airlines? The airport security services? Where do the boundaries of responsibility lie and who is signing off the risk?

Whilst this remains a “theoretical” risk, should passengers, shareholders and investors expect that airlines will invest in appropriate technologies to defend against the MANPAD threat now and in to the future? In broad figures it costs approximately $1m to install such countermeasures compared with a $3m price tag for an in-flight entertainment system. There are also annual maintenance costs, which could reach around $300,000, but for the aviation industry these figures are almost a drop in the ocean when compared with the potential financial impact of a successful attack. This article does not aim to answer any of these questions, but aims to raise the MANPAD issue for appropriate debate and comment in light of recent global events. When faced with the fact that most MANPAD events have taken place in MENA and over war-zones, it is easy to understand why commercial organisations and western governments have not invested in the technology previously. The threat has and remains theoretical in the Western world, but with the rise of ISIS and their continued rhetoric against the US and the UK, the risk of this form of attack in and around one of our major cities is real and must be considered along with other potential terrorist activities.

While there are counter-proliferation programmes in place, is this enough to defeat well-organised, proficient, increasingly professional and determined terrorist organisations such as ISIS? Only time will tell, but those countries, such as Israel, who live with the reality of the threat on their doorsteps have taken the appropriate actions by installing countermeasures in order to mitigate the threat. We should not rest on our laurels and think this remains a theoretical threat. The current terrorist rhetoric sees the globe as the battleground, and will engage any means by which to inflict maximum damage to Western society.

Recent events have highlighted the MANPAD risk once more and have brought the issue back in to focus. The shooting down of MH17, the presence of the “Dummies guide to MANPADS”, the theft of advanced systems in Syria and the continued rhetoric of ISIS serve as reminders that we must expect the unexpected. While we have become comfortable with being uncomfortable in the face of the international jihadist threat, we must remain ever vigilant and cannot become complacent. It is critical, not only in the UK but globally wherever the threat of international terrorism affects a country, that counter-MANPAD plans are dusted off, refreshed and rehearsed in order that we do not have to face a situation in which another airliner is needlessly shot out of the sky with such a tragic loss of life. Next time it might one of our aircraft above one of our cities.


James Milnes is a Director at Hasta UK. Since retiring from the RAF as a Senior RAF Regiment Officer, he has been responsible for the protection of high-value strategic assets in the UK and overseas, both on the ground and in the air.