Nuclear Weapons

Iraq’s Looted Arms Depots: What the GAO Didn’t Mention

04.09.07 | 5 min read | Text by Matt Schroeder

In a recent report, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) attributes the looting of Iraq’s arms depots to the “ovewhelming size and number” of these depots and “prewar planning priorities and certain assumptions that proved to be invalid.” The report finds that the US military “did not adequately secure these [conventional munitions storage] sites during and immediately after the conclusion of major combat operations” and “did not plan for or set up a program to centrally manage and destroy enemy munitions until August 2003…” The munitions looted from Iraqi arsenals, claims the GAO, have been used extensively in the deadly improvised explosive device (IED) attacks that have become tragically commonplace in Iraq.

But the IED threat is only part of the story. Iraq’s arsenals were also brimming with shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, thousands of which disappeared during the widespread looting of the regime’s numerous arms depots in 2003.

While estimates of Iraq’s pre-war shoulder-fired missile holdings vary, most agree that Saddam’s regime accumulated several thousand Soviet-designed SA-7, SA-14 and SA-16 missiles, including more than 3,000 that it looted from Kuwaiti arsenals in 1990. Thousands of these missiles disappeared from Iraqi arsenals during the looting.

Recognizing the particular threat posed by the loose MANPADS, the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) established a buyback program that “has met varying degrees of success”, in the words of one Defense Department spokesman. While aggregate data on the number of missiles collected is not publicly available, information pieced together from media and government sources suggests that the program has recovered at least several hundred missiles; according to the New York Times, 317 missiles were collected from May through October 2003 alone. In one particularly noteworthy example, US soldiers at a collection point in Dohuk received over 200 SA-7 missiles from a single enterprising Iraqi, who bought them from other Iraqis and sold them to coalition forces for $250 apiece. Collection points in other parts of the country also received shoulder-fired missiles, albeit in smaller quantities. Raids on insurgent arms caches have yielded at least several dozen more.

Despite these efforts, many of Iraq’s shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles remain at large. In November 2004, analysts from the Defense Intelligence Agency estimated that 4000 of the missiles were still missing and, in turn, adjusted upward their estimate of black market manpads three-fold from 2000 to 6000. Given the demand for anti-aircraft weapons amongst Iraqi insurgents, most of the missiles are probably still in Iraq. Yet it is not inconceivable that some of these missiles have made their way into the international black market. In the hands of trained terrorists, these missiles, and particularly the more advanced SA-16s reportedly in Iraq’s arsenals, pose a grave threat to military aircraft and commercial airliners.

Recovering the remaining missiles will be a challenge, and it is not clear what more that the US and its allies in Iraq can do in this regard. The Army Corps of Engineers – the lead agency on ordnance destruction in Iraq – has already destroyed more than 400,000 tons of munitions (including 96 missiles),* secured over 340,000 additional tons, and continues to destroy roughly 200 tons of munitions discovered in large caches each month. Coalition and Iraqi troops are seizing and disposing of smaller arms caches almost daily, some of which contain MANPADS.**

While these efforts are all necessary, they are probably insufficient. The looted MANPADS are too widely dispersed and demand for them is too high to realistically expect the US military and the Iraqi government to locate and recover all of the missiles. What the US (and the rest of the international community) can do is take steps to prevent similar looting in the future. The GAO recommends that the Defense Department “incorporate conventional munitions storage site security as a strategic planning factor into all levels of planning policy and guidance…” This step – along with more troops, better overall planning, and more resources – would undoubtedly help the US military to better handle similar scenarios in the future. But even with proper planning and adequate Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) resources, it is doubtful that every arms depot in a country as saturated with weapons as Iraq could be located and secured in time.

Instead, the trick is to keep MANPADS out of the hands of weak, unstable, and aggressive governments in the first place. The Soviets sold thousands of MANPADS to Iraq in the 1980s despite its history of destabilizing military coups and Saddam Hussein’s demonstrated proclivity for international aggression and adventurism. The international community must guard against similar MANPADS build-ups by monitoring proposed sales to militaristic or unstable regimes and intervening to stop them if necessary. Reducing existing stockpiles of surplus and obsolete missiles is also important, particularly in weak and failing states. President Bush recently requested a significant increase in funding for the State Department program that secures and destroys such missiles. This increase, along with proactive monitoring of potentially problematic missile transfers, would be a cost effective way to prevent future MANPADS crises like the one in Iraq.

* Information about the type of missiles destroyed is classified and therefore it is unclear how many (if any) of the munitions secured or destroyed by the Army Corps of Engineers were MANPADS.

** The status of CPA’s MANPADS buyback program is unclear. Budget data from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction reveals that the amount of disbursements has slowed significantly over the past couple years, although it is not clear what it means. The decline could indicate a preciptious drop-off in the number of missiles collected or that funding for missile buybacks is now coming from another account. Without more information from the US miilitary, it is impossible to tell. The FAS has submitted several requests for additional information and will update this posting with information from any responses.

Photo: huge weapons cache discovered in Northern Iraq on 22 November 2004. The cache contained, among other weapons, 15,000 antiaircraft rounds, 4,600 hand grenades, and 25 SA-7 surface-to-air missiles. Source: Army News Service (


DOD Should Apply Lessons Learned Concerning the Need for Security over Conventional Munitions Storage Sites to Future Operations Planning, U.S. Government Accountability Office, GAO-07-444, March 2007.

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “Register of the trade and licensed production of major conventional weapons, 1950-2004.”

Report of the Secretary-General on the Return of Kuwaiti Property Seized by Iraq, 11 March 1994.

“The Struggle for Iraq: Missing Weapons; U.S. Cant Locate Missiles Once Held in Arsenal of Iraq,” New York Times, 8 October 2003.

“Civilians turn in missiles, soldiers pick up to destroy,” Iraqi Destiny, 16 October 2003.

“US Expands List of Lost Missiles,” New York Times, 6 November 2004.

Coalition Munitions Clearance (CMC) Summary, Information Paper, US Army Corps of Engineers

Corps makes Iraq a safer place to live and work, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Support Center

Correspondence with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Public Affairs officer, 3 April 2007.

The Small Arms Trade, Oneworld Publications, 2006. See pp. 115-117.