Analysts Worried About Economic Consequences of Shoulder-Fired Missile Attacks

By Jon Harper

The proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles among militant groups in North Africa and the Middle East could have devastating economic consequences, according to experts.

Concerns about the spread of man-portable air defense systems — often referred to as MANPADS — have become more acute because of the ongoing unrest in Libya, Syria and Iraq. Non-state actors have raided military arsenals in those countries, seizing large quantities of weapons, including shoulder-fired missiles.

“MANPADS are extremely dangerous to aircraft that cannot defend against them and … aircraft that are in certain orientations,” said C.J. Chivers, an investigative reporter with the New York Times who has reported extensively about shoulder-fired weapons. Civilian planes and low-flying aircraft like helicopters are the most vulnerable, especially during takeoff and landing, he said at a June 10 conference at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank

“There aren’t many systems that are only several feet long, that are transportable [and] that potentially could kill with a single use a couple hundred or more people,” Chivers said.

Analysts said that MANPADS attacks against civilian airliners would have a disproportionate psychological and economic effect, especially if a terrorist group like Islamic State — also known as ISIS or ISIL — took down multiple planes in a relatively short timeframe.

“What would happen to global aviation? It would stop. And then what would happen to the global economy? It would stop,” Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher with the Small Arms Survey, said at the conference. “The implications of that threat scenario are so severe that I don’t think you really can under emphasize the need to get a hold on this problem.”

Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi is believed to have had thousands of MANPADS in his arsenal before he was overthrown in 2011 and Libya fell into chaos. There is evidence that some of those weapons have spread to other countries in the region, experts said. In Iraq, Islamic State is believed to have shot down an Iraqi military helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile last year.

“We know that they’re available illicitly in the countries in which ISIS is active, and so I think the threat is very real,” Schroeder said.

Installing countermeasures on civilian airliners would be an option for trying to mitigate the threat, but doing so would create its own national security and political problems, said Lincoln Bloomfield Jr.,  a retired U.S. diplomat and now chairman of the Stimson Center.

“Infrared countermeasures are a very sensitive technology, and they also happen to be the technology that keeps our helicopter pilots and our fighter aircraft pilots from being killed in dangerous areas,” he said. If that type of countermeasure is given to other countries to protect their planes, “you’ve just …. put it into broad circulation, and therefore the technology that keeps your pilots alive in combat may be at risk of easy compromise.”

Deciding who gets to have the systems would force difficult choices, he said. “Of course you know our closest allies would want them… but where do you start to draw the line?”

Withholding the technology from some airlines would potentially put U.S. citizens at risk. “So then an American gets shot down in an airline that doesn’t have your IRCM [infrared countermeasure], and you have the lawsuit phenomenon,” Bloomfield said.

The Department of Homeland Security had a research-and-development program in the 2000s that looked at installing counter-measures on commercial passenger jets, but Congress did not provide funding or pass the necessary legislation to mandate that airlines install the equipment. 

Topics: Armaments, Gun and Missile, Small Arms

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