The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP
The Hon. Alexander Downer, MP

Speech to Seminar at the Millennium Hotel, New York City

Australia’s International MANPADS Initiative

18 January 2007, New York


Thank you for the opportunity to make some closing remarks at this very important seminar.

No country that cares about the safety of its citizens travelling abroad or the security of its aviation industry can remain a bystander when it comes to the spread of man portable air defence systems or MANPADS.

As events in the UK last August again showed, the aviation sector remains a terrorist target of choice.

This is not a localised threat but one that we all potentially face. Our airlines and citizens fly to many destinations. And no country is immune.

While they are a legitimate weapon of defence for conventional militaries, MANPADS are designed for a single purpose – to destroy aircraft.

These weapons do not discriminate between military and civilian targets.

Up to now, MANPADS have been used mainly in war zones. But since the 1970’s, over 40 civilian aircraft have been hit, causing about 25 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide.

In 1994, for example, the Presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed when a shoulder-fired missile struck the civilian aircraft they were travelling in.

This incident was a major factor in the Rwandan Genocide.

In late 1998 and early 1999, two UN-charted aircraft were shot down in Angola probably by UNITA rebels using MANPADS.

There is a danger of these weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.  Any successful attack on a civilian aircraft would almost certainly result in a terrible loss of innocent life.

As hijacking and aircraft bombings become more difficult, given worldwide efforts to strengthen airport security, we believe terrorists might try to find other ways to launch an attack from ‘outside the aircraft’.

Even if an attack at a major international airport failed and caused no casualties, international passenger confidence could suffer.

And the economic consequences could be severe for airlines, and the many industries that rely on the quick movement of people and goods.

It is for good reason that MANPADS have been called “weapons of mass effect”; their potential for wider harm looms greater than their capacity for actual destruction.

So we need to – and do – treat the potential threat very seriously.

But – before I go on to outline briefly what Australia is doing to help counter the threat from the proliferation of these weapons – I want to make two important points. 

The first is that while the consequences of a MANPADS attack could be severe, it is important to keep some sense of proportion about the risk when talking to our flying publics. 

We assess that the likelihood of a MANPADS attack in Australia is low. 

But that’s no reason for complacency.  Australia, like many of the countries represented at this seminar, has a lot at stake in how effectively this threat is addressed elsewhere. 

For a start, our national carrier QANTAS has an extensive global network of routes to fly.  And our people rely even more extensively on the safety of commercial aviation.

Perhaps even more fundamentally, Australia – again in common with many other countries – relies greatly on the benefits of being part of a world in which we can be confident about aviation links. 

We rely on a market place interconnected by such links, and on flows of people – businessmen, tourists, students and others – that have increased steadily over the decades as the reliability and accessibility of international air travel has steadily grown. 

We would stand to suffer greatly in confidence if air travel was significantly damaged. 

So even by protecting ourselves within our own borders – important as that is – we remain vulnerable and motivated to press for a broader international response to the MANPADS threat.

The second point I want to make is to remember the courage of ordinary men and women in many countries – including in my own nation - who have been determined not to live their lives in fear of terrorism. 

When terrorists attack aeroplanes and trains, they seek to exploit the openness of this modern, globalised world. 

But our globalised world has turned out to be remarkably resilient - much more so, I suspect, than terrorist groups like al Qaida could possibly have understood.

Remember how quickly planes were flying again after the 911 attacks. 

Collectively, we have suffered terribly from terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, London, Madrid and Bali, to name but a few. 

But we have also endured.  We have won simply by carrying on as normal.

Here’s a typical quote from a Londoner after the July 2005 bombings—he said:

“I’ve been using the tubes for the last eight years and this will not stop me from carrying on with my day-to-day life.” 

Let’s not lose sight of that resilience even as we step up our efforts to tackle terrorist threats to our way of life. 

MANPADS Proliferation

So, how many MANPADS are there?

As you already know, these weapons have been in production for more than 50 years.

Production estimates vary between 700,000 to more than
1 million units.

But we don’t know how many are actually in existence.

We know that around 20 countries have produced, or have licenses to produce them or their components.

It is clear that the potential for illicit proliferation remains high. Some estimates say as many as 50,000 MANPADS may be in circulation outside official stockpiles worldwide.

Most of these in circulation are older generation weapons that are quite difficult to use effectively against modern jet aircraft.

But an important point is the need to keep the much more capable, latest generation versions of these weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

We know there is a black market for MANPADS.

A British citizen and arms dealer Hemant Lakhani recently was convicted for trying to buy Russian-made weapons to sell to terrorists.

We know terrorist groups and non-state actors want to get their hands on these weapons.

They weigh only about 15kg and can fit inside a golf bag.

And they can be bought reasonably cheaply. The cost of a first generation Russian-made SA-7 on the black market is said to be only around US$5000.

Al-Qaeda was thought responsible for the first MANPADS attack outside an area of conflict.

In late 2002, terrorists fired two missiles at a commercial airliner carrying over 200 passengers in Kenya.

Thankfully, the missiles missed their target. But the attack still led to a large fall in tourist numbers to Kenya.

When captured by the United States in 2003, the Jemaah Islamiya operative Hambali admitted that JI had considered acquiring MANPADS to use against civilian airliners leaving Bangkok airport.

The point is that terrorists would only need to pay the price, of say, a second-hand car, to acquire these weapons and cause great harm.  

Australia’s MANPADS initiative

Just over a year ago, in December 2005, I launched an international diplomatic initiative to help prevent the proliferation of these weapons to non-state groups, including to terrorists.

A primary focus of Australia’s MANPADS initiative has been on counter-proliferation.

But this is not the only approach and we’re not the only country working to address the problem.

That’s why we consider it essential to sustain a coordinated, international effort to address the MANPADS threat.

One plan includes using technical counter-measures fitted to individual aircraft. I know this approach raises significant technical, legal and financial issues for the aviation industry.

There is no single solution to fix the problem. That’s why we believe a range of measures pursued together offers the only realistic approach.

These measures include:

On this last point, we support wider adoption of the Wassenaar
Arrangements’ MANPADS export control standards as the international benchmark

Implementing all these measures is important. And I’m pleased to say there is some good work already being done on all of these areas.

We welcome US efforts in Cambodia, the Balkans and elsewhere to destroy surplus MANPADS that might have found their way onto black markets.

The United States’s international MANPADS destruction program has seen about 19,000 weapons destroyed in 17 countries.

The United Kingdom has also been very active in promoting launch denial strategies at airports in Africa and the Middle East.

Russia, Japan and other countries have also been important partners.

Other international efforts to curb the illicit spread of MANPADS have also been taken forward in the UN, the G8; the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe; the Organisation of American States and in the International Civil Aviation Authority.

Australia’s initiative has already gained widespread support.

In June 2006, Australia hosted an international seminar for Geneva-based UN delegations to highlight practical international action to counter the global MANPADS threat.

Late last year we hosted with Thailand an ASEAN Regional Forum workshop on small arms and light weapons, including MANPADS. Regional experts shared information on the best methods for securing stockpiles.

As Plenary Chair of the Wassenaar Arrangement in 2006, Australia's Ambassador in Vienna led successful outreach mission to several countries.  These missions were well received and productive.

We organised today’s seminar as part of our international initiative.

And I’m confident that the solid work of the Wassenaar Arrangement will continue as Belgium takes the Chair in 2007.

We look forward to continuing to work closely with our friends and allies to raise awareness of the threat to international civil aviation and of the need to maintain a co-ordinated international response.

This year, as the APEC Chair, Australia will focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

APEC Leaders have committed themselves to making progress on meeting the MANPADS threat. 

In Bangkok in 2003 and in Santiago in 2004, APEC economies committed to take steps to introduce Wassenaar equivalent export control and stockpile standards.

In 2005 APEC Leaders agreed to conduct assessments of international airports vulnerability to MANPADS.

And in 2007 Australia will continue to use all avenues at the bilateral regional and multilateral levels to assist APEC economies in meeting their commitments.

We will identify capacity gaps and match these with various international capacity-building assistance programs.

I believe all this work will help to restrict the availability of MANPADS, particularly the more modern and sophisticated weapons systems.


Ultimately, the effectiveness of non-proliferation measures rests on effective co-ordination between as many countries as possible.

We are realistic. We know that our initiative alone is unlikely to produce instant results.

That’s why we support parallel international efforts to destroy surplus stocks, manage stockpiles, and develop launch denial strategies.