The statistics are sobering: as many as 700,000 anti-aircraft missiles for man-portable air defense systems (Manpads) have been manufactured since the 1970s. Up to 7,000 missiles may be outside state control, possibly in the hands of terrorists. Since these weapons began proliferating in the 1960s, there have been some 35 documented Manpads attacks on civil aircraft.
“There’s little or no information on what’s been lost,” James Bevan, a researcher with the Small Arms Survey, told AIN. “There’s very little way to gauge what’s out there: how many missiles, how many complete systems [missiles and missile-launchers] and whose hands they are in.” Thousands of these weapons have been built in and exported from the Soviet Union [and later Russia], China, France, Sweden, the UK and the U.S.
Only five of the 35 documented attacks were against airliners, two of which may have caused the loss of the aircraft. However, there is considerable debate about other possible Manpad attacks, which may have caused the loss of aircraft in Rwanda in 1994 and in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998.
Using these weapons is no easy task. “They’re fairly complicated,” said Bevan. “They’ve got a strict firing sequence to get the internal electronics running and you have to wait to lock on the target. It takes quite a lot of training and nerve to use them successfully. In a lot of these cases it’s not trained personnel who are using them.”
However, there is growing concern that Manpads have become an increasingly viable option for terrorists. “The problem is somewhere like Iraq where you not only get release of weaponry, but of personnel as the whole military was disbanded,” Bevan explained. “You’ve got technical know-how kicking around with no money and that’s a serious threat.”
There are some international mechanisms in place to frustrate the illicit supply of Manpads. The Wassenaar Arrangement’s Expanded Elements of Export Controls for Manpads demands secure weapons storage and surveillance. The 95 countries that are signatories to the Wassenaar voluntary multilateral arms control mechanism have accepted these guidelines either in whole or in part. But these regulations are not watertight. Individual countries have to monitor and implement the agreement, and some countries that have been charged with exporting Manpads, such as Iran, Pakistan and North Korea, have yet to sign the agreement.
Several areas around the world are Manpads danger zones, with the weapons having been used in Somalia, Iraq and Lebanon. Africa is a particular concern. An Israeli Boeing 757-300 belonging to Arkia Airliners was shot at by two 9K32M Strela-2 (NATO reporting name SA-7 “Grail”) missiles as it left Mombasa International Airport in Kenya in November 2002. A Douglas DC-3 aircraft was downed by FARC guerrillas in Colombia, with a United Nations C-130 cargo aircraft shot down by UNITA rebels in Angola three years earlier.
Countermeasures for Commercial Aircraft
The Kenya incident prompted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to consider how to protect commercial aircraft against the Manpads threat by configuring military countermeasures (CM) technology for commercial aircraft. BAE Systems is working with Northrop Grumman on two separate DHS-sponsored initiatives to test the feasibility of this idea.
BAE Systems (Outside Area OE14) secured a $27 million contract from the DHS to equip three Boeing 767 aircraft belonging to American Airlines that will fly continental U.S. long-haul services equipped with the company’s JetEye infrared CM system. “We’re going to be doing the installation on the commercial aircraft and flying from July though to the end of March 2009,” said BAE.
Northrop Grumman (Outside Areas OE6 and OE3) has completed its segment of the DHS initiative. The company equipped 11 FedEx Boeing MD-10 freighters with its directional infrared counter measure system, and flew them across the U.S., amassing 20,000 flight hours.
According to BAE, what happens next with the DHS initiative will be determined by how the U.S. Congress government decides to deploy these systems.
Israel already has a head start on the DHS. In the wake of the Kenya attacks, its government agreed to foot the bill for installing self-defense systems–notably the Flight Guard product from Israeli Aircraft Industries/ELTA (Hall 1 Stand C2)–on aircraft operated by Israir, El-Al and Arkia Airlines.
In Europe, Saab Avitronics (Chalet C24-26) has developed the Civil Aircraft Missile Protection System (CAMPS). CAMPS uses flares that fall into the aircraft’s slipstream rather than being ejected from the airplane using pyrotechnics. This mitigates some of the regulatory issues associated with military aircraft chaff and flare countermeasures that are covered by international arms export legislation. A civilian aircraft equipped with military chaff and flare systems can be considered exporting a weapon if it performs an international flight. CAMPS will be available for installation on commercial aircraft toward the beginning of next year.
Opposition to Countermeasures
However, there is not universal support for equipping commercial aircraft with CMs. In 2006 the Air Line Pilots Association in North America expressed concerns about the costs of the systems. Since then, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has raised questions about whether there is industry support for CMs to be deployed on commercial aircraft, and argued that the cost of these systems could potentially bankrupt smaller airlines.
This is a serious issue because existing CM systems could cost up to $3 million per aircraft, although Saab claims that the price tag for CAMPS is closer to $500,000. Instead, IATA proposes beefing up international arms control regulations to restrict the export of Manpads and improving the security around airports to prevent the type of incident that occurred in Mombasa.
Current cost issues could mean that commercial operators flying into dangerous places–during humanitarian operations, for example–are more likely to invest in Manpads countermeasures than mainstream airlines. After all, the bulk of the Manpads attacks on commercial aircraft have been on cargo planes flying into war zones and have largely ignored passenger aircraft flying over peaceful ground.
That said, all it would take would be a successful Manpads attack on a passenger aircraft in North America or Europe for political pressure to mount on governments to require airlines to be equipped with countermeasures. However, CMs are only part of the answer, with export controls and improvements in airport security also being potentially potent countermeasures against the Manpads menace.