Nuclear Weapons

FAS Obtains DHS Report on Programs to Counter the Shoulder-fired Missile Threat

10.25.07 | 3 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the FAS, the Department of Homeland Security has released a December 2005 report to Congress on the status of DHS’s efforts to counter the threat from man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to commercial airliners.

The report, which Congress required as part of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, sheds new light on several key DHS counter-MANPADS efforts, including airport vulnerability assessments, contingency plans for MANPADS attacks, and intelligence sharing and law enforcement training. These efforts are part of a multi-faceted U.S. campaign to deprive terrorists of access to these weapons and mitigate the threat from missiles that are already in terrorist arsenals.

The current U.S. counter-MANPADS campaign was launched in late 2002 after al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists fired two Soviet-era SA-7 missiles at an Israeli airliner as it was departing from Mombassa, Kenya. Even though the missiles missed the plane, the attack had a profound effect on the international community and the United States in particular, transforming its nascent and modest efforts to address the MANPADS threat into a full-fledged campaign. Within weeks of the attack, the US government had established an inter-agency task force and “a systematic, end-to-end countermeasures strategy” focused on three main areas: (1) proliferation control and threat reduction, (2) tactical measures and recovery, and (3) technical countermeasures (i.e. anti-missile systems). While much has been written here and elsewhere about the first and third areas, comparatively little is known about the second area (tactical measures and recovery), which includes vulnerability assessments of airports, contingency planning for manpads attacks, and information sharing and law enforcement training. The DHS report fills in some of these gaps.

The report provides a good general overview of DHS efforts to assess the vulnerability of U.S. and foreign airports to missile attacks. As of December 2005, the US government had conducted initial MANPADS vulnerability assessments at all 443 US commercial airports and several airports abroad, annual follow-up assessments at the largest 25 or so airports, and special assessments “to support several National Security Special Events,” including the 2004 Democratic and Republican National Conventions, the 2005 Presidential Inauguration, and the 2004 G8 summit. In addition, the Transporation Security Administration (TSA) has helped foreign governments develop the capacity to conduct their own assessments by training foreign officials and by providing an assessment methodology to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has made it available to all 190 of its contracting (member) states via a secure Internet link. Very little information on what the vulnerability assessments entail or the type and extent of security improvements made by airports in response to the assessments is provided in the report, however.

The report also provides some additional information about contingency planning for MANPADS attacks, although not enough to evaluate their rigor, implementation, and effectiveness. After completing a vulnerability assessment, each airport developes a MANPADS mitigation plan that is tested via tabletop exercises and revised to address any weaknesses. Copies of the plans are then sent to TSA headquarters, which, as of December 2005, had received 400 such plans. The report also touches briefly on intelligence sharing and MANPADS awareness training, which has been provided to DHS employees, U.S. Capitol and Park Police, and thousands of officers who receive training at the DHS Federal Law Enforcement Center. DHS has also distributed CD-ROMs with training material to state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies.

Also worth mentioning is the section on public education and neighborhood watch programs, which DHS ultimately decided not to pursue. Interestingly, one of the arguments against the programs is that MANPADS are not a “high risk threat to aircraft within the United States,” which raises the question of why DHS is now spending tens of millions of dollars on programs to assess and develop ground- and UAV-based anti-missile systems for US airports on top of the tens of millions of dollars it has already spent on the development of aircraft-mounted systems.

For more information on the MANPADS threat and US counter-MANPADS efforts:

Securing the Nation Against Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, December 2005.

“Countering the MANPADS Threat: Strategies for Success,” Arms Control Today, September 2007

“Global efforts to control MANPADS” in SIPRI Yearbook 2007: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security.

ASMP Issue Brief #1: MANPADS Proliferation