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Issue Brief #1

MANPADS Proliferation

Understanding the Problem   |   Mitigating the Threat   |  Media Inquiries  |  Related Documents   |  Recent News  |  FAS Resources  |   FOIA Documents  |  Notes

Understanding the Problem

While addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that "no threat is more serious to aviation" than man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). Easy to use and readily available on the black market, MANPADS do indeed pose an imminent and acute threat to military aircraft and civilian airliners.1

The Weapons
Since the development of the American Redeye in the late 1950's, hundreds of thousands of MANPADS have been manufactured worldwide. Among the most numerous and best known are the Russian Strela (SA-7 and SA-14), Igla (SA-16 and SA-18)2 and the U.S.-manufactured FIM-92 Stinger.

  • Strela-2 (SA-7a): Fielded by the Soviet military in 1968, the SA-7 is among the least sophisticated and most highly proliferated of these weapons. Strela-2s can engage aircraft flying above 50 meters and below 1500 meters, but only when launched from behind the targeted aircraft. Its infrared (IR) seeker - the device the missile uses to identify its target - homes in on the infrared energy emission of the aircraft. The seeker can be fooled by simple countermeasures such as flares. The missile's small 1.17 kg warhead detonates upon impact with the target.3
  • Strela-2M (SA-7b): The Strela-2M was developed shortly after the first Strela to address several of its shortcomings. Improvements in the guidance system allows the missile to engage transport planes and helicopters head-on, unless the aircraft is flying faster than 540 km/h. The SA-7b can hit targets flying at much higher altitudes (2300 meters), and as far away as 4.2 km.4
  • Strela-3(SA-14): The SA-14 was accepted into Soviet service in 1974. Improvements to the missile's IR seeker reduce the effectiveness of flares as decoys and allow the user to engage jet aircraft head-on. The SA-14 also features a larger, more lethal warhead (1.8 kg) and a launching mechanism that prevents the user from shooting at targets outside of its range. It can effectively engage targets flying above 30m and below 3000 meters. 5
  • Igla-1 (SA-16) and Igla (SA-18): Igla missiles have warheads that are smaller but more lethal than the Strela's, and their warheads are equipped with both a proximity and an impact fuse. The missile's IR-seeker is specifically designed to distinguish between countermeasures (such as flares) and the targeted aircraft. Both have a maximum range 5.2 km, and are able to engage targets operating between 10 meters and 3500 meters. 6
  • Stinger (FIM-92A/B/C/D): The Stinger is similar in capabilities to the Russian Igla series. More recent versions are equipped with a cooled two-color, infrared-ultraviolet detector that discriminates between flares and the target. Stingers are able to effectively engage targets head-on, from behind and from the side. The missile's maximum range is 4800 meters, which is comparable to the Igla, but it has a much shorter minimum range (200 meters versus the Igla's 800 meter minimum). It is one of the fastest MANPADS missiles, traveling at Mach 2.2.7

There are an estimated 500,000 MANPADS in the world today, many thousands of which are thought to be on the black market and therefore accessible to terrorists and other non-state actors.8 MANPADS are attractive to terrorists and insurgents because they are

  • lethal - The history of MANPADS usage by guerrillas and terrorists underscores the efficacy of these weapons against both civilian and military targets. Estimates of deaths resulting from MANPADS attacks on civilian aircraft range from 500 to 1000.9 While most of these deaths were from attacks on smaller aircraft, the Congressional Research Service identified 5 cases in which large civilian turbojet aircraft were targeted. In two of the five cases, the outcome was catastrophic - all people on board were killed.10

    Insurgent groups seek MANPADS because they are effective against attack helicopters and other aircraft that are used in counter-insurgency operations. During the Soviet occupations of Afghanistan, rebels used U.S.-supplied Stinger missiles to damage or destroy hundreds of aircraft, degrading the threat from Soviet airpower.11
  • highly portable and concealable - MANPADS are around 5 feet long and weigh approximately 30 to 40 pounds.12 They fit in a gulf club bag, in the back of a truck, or in the cargo area of a small boat.
  • inexpensive - Early model MANPADS can be acquired on the black market for several thousand dollars. In exceptional circumstances, that price can drop to as low as a few hundred dollars; manpads pilfered from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's massive arms stockpiles were later purchased by the Coalition Provisional Authority for a mere $500 apiece. While later generation manpads cost significantly more (>$30,000), they are still within easy reach of well financed terrorist and criminal groups.13

Ease of Use and Vulnerability
With proper training, MANPADS are relatively simple to operate. All the user has to do is visually acquire the target, and activate the automatic target lock and launch system by pulling a trigger. The missile then uses infrared and/or other seeking capabilities to home in on the target.14

In the hands of trained terrorists, MANPADS are formidable threats to unprotected aircraft and most of the thousands of civilian aircraft are unprotected. Furthermore, installing effective countermeasures on these planes would be a time-consuming and costly process. For example, a program to equip 3000 U.S. commercial aircarft with Northrup Grumman's Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system would cost around $3 billion and require 6 years to complete.15 Outfitting civilian planes worldwide would take much longer, and countermeasures installed today may not be effective against next generation MANPADS. Thus, civilian aircraft are likely to be vulnerable to MANPADS attacks for the foreseeable future.
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Mitigating the Threat

Options for addressing the MANPADS threat can be divided into three general categories: susceptibility reduction, vulnerability reduction, and non-proliferation. Susceptibility reduction involves measures designed to prevent MANPADS from hitting an aircraft. Vulnerability reduction focuses on improving aircraft survivability in the event of a MANPADS hit. Non-proliferation is aimed at preventing the acquisition and use of MANPADS by problematic end-users (e.g. criminal and terrorist organizations). The measures in each category are not mutually exclusive, and none alone will eliminate the threat posed by MANPADS to civilian aircraft. However, a coordinated strategy that incorporates measures from all three categories can reduce the likelihood of a successful attack.

Susceptibility Reduction
Most discussion on mitigating the MANPADS threat has centered on susceptibility reduction. Included in this category are the following measures:

  • Improved airport perimeter security - Patrolling the areas around airports could help to detect and deter MANPADS attacks. However, the personnel and equipment necessary to thoroughly patrol the nation's 450 primary airports would be very costly, and the protection provided by these patrols would be imperfect at best. Incoming and departing aircraft fly within the range of many MANPADS for approximately 25 miles, requiring patrols capable of policing a 300-square-mile area surrounding the airport. Nonetheless, more limited patrols could help to deter attacks with shorter-range weapons (such as the SA-7), and at airports surrounded by water or flat, featureless terrain.16

  • Air Traffic Procedures can be altered to reduce the likelihood of a succesful MANPADS attack. Replacing gradual approach and descent patterns with spiral descents and steep, rapid climbouts would reduce the amount of time that commercial aircraft fly within range of modern MANPADS. Such changes are not without risks and costs, however. Spiral descents are harrowing for passengers and would require pilot retraining. Quick climbouts reduce the margin of safety in the event of engine failure. Furthermore, even with these changes to flight patterns, the area over which planes would be within range of MANPADS would still be significant.17

  • Technical Countermeasures- There are a variety of protective systems designed to detect and foil MANPADS attacks. These include the following systems: 18

    • Infrared Decoy Flares confuse the infra-red seekers of earlier MANPADS models by dispensing materials that give off an IR signature that is similar to, or more intense than, the signature of the aircraft itself. These systems are less effective against newer models of MANPADS, which are better able to differentiate between flares and the aircraft. Many flare systems also pose a fire hazard, precluding their use in heavily populated areas.19

    • Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCMs) direct infrared energy at the missile's seeker, causing it to veer off course and away from the targeted aircraft. Infrared seeking missiles have seekers - devices that are sensitive to IR - that monitor a target's location and trajectory by constantly measuring the infrared energy given off by the target. If the missile is off course (i.e. the target moves to the outer edge of the seeker's field of view), the seeker sends an electronic signal to the missile's guidance system, which uses the missile's fins to change its trajectory. In this way, the missile makes continuous, minor adjustments to its flight path until it intercepts its target.

      DIRCMs direct a beam of infrared energy at the missile's seeker. The beam, which generates a target signal that is stronger than that of the targeted aircraft, fools the guidance system into thinking the missile is off course. The guidance system responds by adjusting the missile's flight path. The DIRCM continues to direct the IR beam at the missile until it is so off course that it no longer poses a threat to the aircraft.

    • Missile warning systems (MWS) alert the targeted aircraft, including the aircraft's IRCMs, of an incoming missile. 20

Vulnerability Reduction
Vulnerability reduction involves designing or modifying the aircraft to increase the chance of survival in the event of a successful MANPADS hit, and is accomplished through:
  • redundancy and separation of flight controls and hydraulic systems,
  • improved fire and explosion suppression systems,
  • installation of fuel shut-off valves or self-sealing fuel lines,
  • hardening of vital areas that are vulnerable to external (MANPADS) threats.21
Evolution in MANPADS technologies is making these weapons more lethal and better able to overcome the countermeasures identified above. To ensure that protective systems installed on aircraft today are not rendered obsolete by terrorist acquisition of next generation MANPADS tomorrow, the international community must act decisively to improve stockpile security and strengthen export controls in countries that import and manufacture MANPADs. Below is a list of recent national and international initiatives to control the proliferation of these weapons:
  • The Wassenaar Arrangement's (WA)22 Elements for Export Controls of MANPADS - Through the adoption of the Elements for Export Controls of MANPADS, the WA's 33 participating states agreed to a set of criteria for evaluating potential MANPADS exports. The agreement discourages MANPADS transfers to end-users other than states, and to governments that are unwilling or unable to protect against theft, loss, misuse, or diversion of the MANPADS themselves or related technical information. It also identifies several safeguards that importing governments should implement, including storing the firing mechanism and the missile in separate locations, taking monthly inventories of imported MANPADs, and re-exporting imported systems only after receiving prior consent from the exporting government.
  • The G8 Action Plan of 2 June 2003 - At their June 2003 meeting in Evian, the Group of 8 major industrialized democracies endorsed the WA's Elements for Export Controls on MANPADS and agreed to take several additional steps. Especially noteworthy is the Group's commitment to

    • explore the feasibility of preventing unauthorized use of these weapons through the development of launch control features and other design changes;
    • help other countries to collect, secure and destroy surplus units;
    • exchange information on "uncooperative countries and entities."
    • report on their progress toward implementing these steps in time for the 2004 G8 meeting.

  • 2003 APEC Summit, Bangkok Declaration on Partnership for the Future - At the October 2003 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders Meeting, APEC's 21 member states agreed to strengthen national controls on MANPADS production, exports, and stockpile security. Like the G8 agreement, the Declaration also calls on members to ban transfers to sub-national groups, exchange information on national efforts to implement the agreement, and to explore the feasibility of launch control devices.
  • Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Forum for Security Co-operation, Decision No. 7/03: Man-portable Air Defense Systems - July 2003, the OSCE's Forum for Security Co-operation urged member states to "propose projects for tackling MANPADS-related problems..." by improving stockpile security and boarder controls. To faciliate discussion on these and related topics, the OSCE committed to compiling a matrix of data on MANPADS, which will be gathered from submissions by member states as part of their June 2003 information exchange on small arms. The deadline for preparing the matrix was 10 October 2003.

Written by: Sarah Chankin-Gould and Matt Schroeder
January 2004

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Media Inquires

Contact Matt Schroeder at (202) 454-4693

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Related Documents

Recent News  |  FAS Resources  |  Media and NGOS  |  Industry |  Congress |  Defense Department |  Government Accountability Office  | Department of Homeland Security | Justice Department |  State Department |  Other |  Reference/photos | Inter-governmental  | FOIA

Note: Bold text documents provide a good overview of the MANPADS threat and/or policy options for addressing the threat.

Recent News

News Archive

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FAS Resources

  • Matt Schroeder, "Rogue Missiles - Tracking MANPADS Proliferation Trends", Jane's Intelligence Review, November 2007. Media Advisory

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Media and NGOs

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U.S. Government Documents

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Defense Department

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Government Accountability Office

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Department of Homeland Security

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Justice Department

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State Department

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  • "MANPADS: What they do and how they do it," presentation by Chris Hughes, United Kingdom Ministry of Defense, at the one-day OAS conference entitled "Effective Strategies to Migitate the Threat Posed by the use of Man-portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) by non-State actors, 8 March 2007. Good basic overview of MANPADS technology and systems
  • Iraq Ordnance Identification Guide, "Guided Missiles", Naval Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technology Division
  • "MANPADS Components", Defense Intelligence Agency , undated (2002).

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Inter-governmental Efforts to Combat MANPADS Proliferation

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum  |  Association of Southeast Asian Nations  |  G-8 |  Australian Government's International MANPADS Initiative |  International Civil Aviation Organization |  Organization of American States  | Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe  |  North Atlantic Treaty Organization  |  Wassenaar Arrangement  |  United Nations

Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum (APEC)
  • 2006 APEC Ministerial Meeting, Joint Statement, Ha Noi, Vietnam, 15-16 November 2006. [note: bold added]
  • 2005 APEC Ministerial Meeting, Joint Statement, Busan, Republic of Korea, 15-16 November 2005.
    [note: bold added]

  • 2004 APEC Ministerial Meeting, Joint Statement, Santiago, Chile, 17-18 November 2004.

    • Media Release, 4th APEC Transportation Ministerial Meeting, 31 July 2004.

Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
  • G8 Action Plan on MANPADS "Enhance Transport Security and Control of Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS): A G8 Action Plan," State Department Fact Sheet, Evian, 2 June 2003.

Australian Government's International MANPADS Initiative

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)
  • Presentation by Dominique R. Antonini, Chief, Aviation Security Section, International Civil Aviation Organization, at the Follow-up Meeting to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Special Meeting, 11-12 March 2004.

Organization of American States (OAS)
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

  • Day 1 Conference Report, Follow-up Meeting to the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) Special Meeting on 6 March 2003
    Hosted by the OSCE in co-operation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 11 March 2004.
North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Wassenaar Arrangement (WA)

United Nations

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Documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act

    FOIA No. 200500711: documents containing information on the acquisition and/or use of MANPADS by 10 Non-state groups, filed 2 February 2005.

    FOIA No. F-2007-00010: records on "a foiled attempt by Arab terrorists to shoot down an Israeli El Al plane near Rome's Fiumcino airport."

    FOIA No. F-2007-00057: "a copy of the June 1998 document entitled "Bin Ladin Threatening to Attack US Aircraft."

    FOIA No. 200603443: "Report on Small Arms Programs," State Department (required by the Conference Report accompanying the FY06 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act).

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[1]Beveridge, Dirk, "APEC Nations Agree to Limit Missile Sales," Associated Press, 18 October 2003.

[2]For a technical description of Russian Strela and Igla missiles see Michel Fiszer and Jerzy Gruszczynski, "On Arrows and Needles," Journal of Electronic Defense (JED), December 2002, available at http://www.jedonline.com/

[3]Fiszer, Michal, "On Arrows and Needles," p. 2-3.

[4]David A. Kuhn, "Mombassa attack highlights increasing MANPADS threat," Jane's Intelligence Review, February 2003, p. 29.

Fiszer, Michal, "On Arrows and Needles," p. 3.

[5]Fiszer, "On Arrows and Needles," p. 3.

[6]Fiszer, "On Arrows and Needles," p. 4-5 and Kuhn, "Mombassa attack highlights increasing MANPADS threat," p. 29

[7]U.S. Marine Corps, Low Altitude Air Defense Handbook; "Raytheon Electronic Systems FIM-92 Stinger low-altitude surface-to-air missile system family,"Jane's Land-Based Air Defense, 13 October 2000; and David A. Kuhn, "Mombassa attack highlights increasing MANPADS threat," Jane's Intelligence Review, February 2003, p. 28.

[8]Kuhn, "Mombassa attack highlights increasing MANPADS threat," p. 28.

[9]See Paul J. Caffera, "Hand-held Terror," Washington Post, 5 November 2001, available at http://www.crows.org/Government%20Affairs/Legislation/ManPADS/washpost_handheld.pdf and Caffera, "Israel has anti-missile plan for jets: Commercial airliners to get protection against some shoulder-fired rockets," San Francisco Chronicle, 29 August 2003, available at http://www.house.gov/israel/news/clippings/082903-manpads.pdf. For an example of the training, skills and information needed to effectively employ modern MANPADS, see Appendix K of MANPADS Platoon, Section and Team Operations, Field Manual No. 44-46, Department of the Army.

[10]Bolkcom, Christopher and Bartholomew Elias, "Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners from Terrorist Missiles," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Updated, 3 November 2003, p. 7, available at http://www.fas.org/irp/crs/RL31741.pdf

[11]Kuperman, Alan J., "The Stinger Missile and U.S. Intervention in Afghanistan," Political Science Quarterly, Volume 114, Number 2, 1999, p. 246.

[12]Thompson, Loren B., "MANPADS: Scale & Nature of the Threat," Lexington Institute, 12 November 2003, available at http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/defense/111203MANPADS.pdf.

[13]See Ken Silverstein and Judy Pasternak, "A Market in Missiles for Terror," Los Angeles Times, 6 March 2003 and Thomas Hunter, "The proliferation of MANPADS," Jane's Intelligence Review, September 2001, p. 42.

[14]Kuhn, "Mombasa attack highlights increasing MANPADS threat," p. 27.

For an example of the training, skills and information needed to effectively use modern MANPADS, see Appendix K of MANPADS Platoon, Section and Team Operations, Field Manual No. 44-46, Department of the Army.

[15]Prepared Testimony of Dr. Robert DelBoca Before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Aviation Subcommittee, 20 March 2003.

[16]Patrolling the area around airports set in major metropolitan areas would be an especially daunting task. For example, as Professor Loren Thompson points out, protecting aircraft flying into and out of the airports servicing New York City would require the patrolling of 1000 square miles containing 10 million people. See Sherman, Robert, "The Real Terrorist Missile Threat, and What Can be Done About It," FAS Public Interest Report, Volume 56, Number 3, Autumn 2003;

Caffera, Paul J., "The Vexing Problem of Protecting Airliners from MANPADS," Aircraft Survivability, Summer 1999, p. 14; and Thompson, "MANPADS: Scale & Nature of the Threat"

[17]See Bolkom, "Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners from Terrorist Missiles," p. 13-14.

[18]In addition to the Bolkcom, Caffera, and Puttré articles cited in this section, an interesting discussion on countermeasures can be found in David Learmont, et al., "Can countermeasures work?" Flight International, 10 December 2002.

[19]Bolkcom, "Homeland Security: Protecting Airliners from Terrorist Missiles," p. 11.

[20]For information on the importance and problems associated with MWS see Puttré, "Facing the Shoulder-Fired Threat." p. 4-6.

[21] Caffera, Paul J., "The Vexing Problem of Protecting Airliners from MANPADS," p. 16 and Howard Fleisher, "Commercial Aircraft Vulnerability Assessment" Aircraft Survivability, Fall 2002, p. 24, available at http://jas.jcs.mil/news/pdf/2002_fall.pdf.
For further discussion of vulnerability reduction also see Anthony Lizza and Greg Czarnecki, "Low Vulnerability Technologies: Building a Balanced Approach" and Jaime Childress, Robert Tomaine and Michael Meyers, "MANPADS Survivability Depends on Aircraft Design and Type" Aircraft Survivability, Summer 1999, http://jas.jcs.mil/news/pdf/1999_summer.pdf

[22]The Wassenaar Arrangement is a grouping of 33 conventional arms exporting countries that set standards for exports of conventional weapons and dual-use goods. Its members include several manufacturers and/or exporters of MANPADS, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, United Kingdom and United States. For more information see http://www.wassenaar.org/.

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