A version of this article, titled “Protect Airliners From SAM Threat” was published on February 17, 2014, in Aviation Week & Space Technology’s Viewpoint section (p. 58).
Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, former CIA director General David Petraeus issued a serious warning about the international threats posed by shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles (Manpads) in the hands of al Qaeda and other terrorists. Petraeus referred to the January 27th downing of an Egyptian military helicopter by a Russian Strela-2 missile (aka SA-7) by al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula. “Shooting down a helicopter with an apparent shoulder-fired missile is a big deal. … Our worst nightmare [was] that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one,” he said. … “The concern over an attack on civilian aviation flows not only from the loss of passengers’ lives, but also from the likely economic consequences that would follow—a worldwide grounding of air traffic that might bring the global economy to a screeching halt.”
The threat of Manpads in the hands of al Qaeda and terrorist groups has escalated dramatically. After Moammar Gadhafi’s killing by rebels in Libya, on October 20, 2011, some 20,000 Manpads went missing. Months later only 5,000 were reportedly destroyed. Where the remaining 15,000 missiles are is unclear.
While the Obama Administration issued a statement assuring Americans that most of Libya’s weapons, including shoulder-fired Manpads, had been secured, NATO’s then-military committee chairman, Admiral Giampaolo di Paola, was not so sure. His fear that Libyan Manpads could be scattered “from Kenya to Kunduz [Afghanistan]” subsequently materialized.
Libyan, Iranian and possibly Syrian MANPADs found their way to Salafi Bedouins, Hamas and al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist groups in the Sinai, forcing restriction of Israeli military and civilian air traffic in the area. A year after Gadhafi’s fall, Israeli officials reported that an SA-7 had been fired at one of their military aircraft over the Gaza Strip (AW&ST March 12,2012).
On January 16, 2012, a Bedouin Tarabeen tribe leader in the Sinai told CNN, “We have smuggled thousands of shoulder-launched SAMs (surface-to-air-missiles) to Gaza through the tunnels … and we saved some for us.” In March 2012, Aviation Week reported that MANPADs from Libya, including the advanced Russian made SA-24 Grinch SAMs, “were apparently smuggled to Iran where they were then sent to Iran’s proxy force, Hezbollah, in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.”
In August and twice in September 2013, growing al-Qaeda activities forced El Al to suspend flights to Eilat. And in October 2013, “Dutch charter airline Transavia … cancelled flights to … Sharm el-Sheikh … [because of] threats from the ground in the [surrounding] Sinai area.”
Evidence that al Qaeda in the Magrab (AQIM) has been training its fighters to use Gadhafi’s SA-7 Manpads was discovered in 2013, not by intelligence services, but by the Associated Press. A “Dummies’ Guide to MANPADS,” written in Arabic, was discovered at a “Jihad Academy” in Timbuktu, Mali.
Indeed, growing jihadi activities in the Sahel have elevated threats to energy installations in not only Mali, but also in the entire region. In addition to jeopardizing European oil and gas supplies, they threaten the economic and political stability of West African countries. These deadly, man-portable missiles have a 10,000-ft. range and can as easily target military as civilian aircraft during takeoff and landing.
And early this month, following his visit to Moscow, Syrian opposition leader Ahmad Jarba declared that he was expecting anti-aircraft weapons (Manpads), but did not say who would supply them. [Since this article was originally written, media reports revealed that in a meeting held in Jordan, on January 30–after the Syrian peace talks in Geneva foundered–the Saudis decided to supply a “significant amount” of Chinese Manpads to the Southern Front rebel group of 10,000 fighters, despite U.S. opposition.]
Despite the alarming spread of Manpads, U.S. aviation security experts argue that the threat to America’s civil aviation fleet posed by Manpads is minimal. They say the cost of equipping passenger aircraft with Manpad countermeasure devices–estimated at $43 billion–is prohibitive and unjustified. However, if a single missile found its way to Hezbollah operatives in Mexico and was then smuggled into the U.S. and fired at any of the 7,000 aircraft comprising the U.S. civilian fleet, the struggling U.S. economy would be devastated in a flash. This time, U.S. government officials and airline executives could not claim they were unaware of the threat. This time, they would be held responsible for hundreds of deaths.
Hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars have been spent to develop Manpad countermeasure systems to protect civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. The most advanced, well-tested, and lightweight system available today, however, is the Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures (MUSIC) family defensive aids for aircraft and helicopters, manufactured by Elbit Systems, an international defense electronics company based in Haifa, Israel.
Measuring 2.7 meters, the system’s hardware can be installed on an aircraft’s exterior or inside the fuselage. An externally mounted C-Music pod weighs only 190 kg (418 lbs.) and can be transferred to another aircraft in about 40 minutes. A lighter variant (160 kg or 352 lbs.) is designed for carriage inside an aircraft.
The threat of Manpads, which can cost as little as $5,000 a piece on the black market, to U.S. commercial aviation is real and present. Protection is needed now. If the U.S. government refuses to act, insurance companies should demand that airlines install available protective systems. Airline owners would resist, claiming the cost– $1.5-3 million per system–is too high. But the flying public would probably be willing to trade higher ticket prices for assured protection from Manpad attacks.
*Rachel Ehrenfeld, Director of American Center for Democracy, is author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop it.”