Tuesday, February 23, 2010
Where Have All the MANPADS Gone?
By Katie Drummond Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) — the shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles that are a popular black market item for insurgent forces — have dropped off the military’s radar in Iraq. But not because they’re necessarily being traded less. The military just can’t find them. A new report [PDF] by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) confirms that “only a handful” of illicit MANPADS were recovered from terrorist caches in 2009, according to media reports and interviews with military sources. That’s a major drop, considering that dozens were being recovered and dismantled in previous years: an estimated 121 between October 2006 and December 2008. Tracking down the weapons has been a primary focus for U.S. and Iraqi forces, and justifiably so. In 2003, Colin Powell remarked that there was “no threat more serious to aviation” than the missiles, which can be used to shoot down helicopters and commercial airliners, and are available on the black market for as little as a few hundred dollars. Globally, the U.S. has led an effort to dismantle the weapons, with over 30,000 voluntarily destroyed since 2003. Most of the MANPADS still out there — estimates suggest more than 500,000 remain operational, with thousands being kept illicitly — are of Soviet descent. The second-generation, SA-7 and SA-14 missiles were stockpiled by Saddam Hussein’s regime, and then looted during the leadership’s collapse in 2003. That’s why they’re more common among Iraqi insurgents, and less of a threat to forces fighting in Afghanistan. The good news is that the Soviet missiles may be nearing the end of their lifespan, and aren’t as powerful as their more modern, American counterparts. Which, of course, might also be in the hands of insurgents, albeit in lesser numbers. The CIA “lost” several hundred Stingers, SA-7s and Blowpipes in the 1980s, and Sweden admitted to inadvertently diverting a few dozen of their MANPADs to Iran in the 1980s, as well. The optimistic conclusion would be that rigorous military efforts are paying off, and terrorists have less access to MANPADS than they used to. Or, the seizures might not be reported as often. A spokesperson for the Multi-National Forces-Iraq cited “operational security” constraints, and refused to comment when asked by the FAS about the apparent decrease. Then there’s the possibility that the missiles are just becoming harder to find. Insurgents would be wise to keep MANPADS well-hidden: they’re cheap, portable, highly-lethal and easy to use. Plus, military forces and civilians remain vulnerable to an attack. Security measures at civilian airports, like changes to perimeter security or airplane flight patterns, haven’t been implemented. And anti-missile jammers for commercial flights are still a rarity. Read More http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2010/02/where-have-all-the-manpads-gone/#ixzz0gNf0emgO