The downing of a passenger plane over Eastern Ukraine Thursday rekindled long-held fears in Washington about threats posed to commercial aircraft by shoulder-fired missiles — especially in light of intelligence that terror groups have scooped up such weaponry from chaotic battlefields in the Middle East and North Africa.
While initial reports indicate the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 was shot out of the sky by a more substantial, ground-based Russian missile system, the U.S. counterterrorism community has characterized the prospect of shoulder-fired missile attacks on passenger planes as a serious terrorist threat.
“The threat to civilian aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles is well known, and it’s a concern for many governments, particularly because of the breakdown in government during recent years in Syria, Iraq and Libya, which has resulted in these weapons proliferating on those battlefields and beyond,” said Bill Roggio, a scholar focused on terrorism issues at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington.
The early-2000s brought reports that militants had looted thousands of MANPADS, also known as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, from unsecured Iraqi military stockpiles following the U.S. invasion of the nation. But the origin of shoulder-fired missiles being used more recently by Sunni Muslim extremists in the nation is less clear.
A video circulated on jihadist websites last month by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — the group that has seized a vast swath of territory straddling the Iraq-Syria border — showed fighters firing what some analysts have said look like Russian-made SA-7 MANPADS.
The Department of State issued a sobering assessment in 2011, asserting in a statement on its website that “countering the proliferation of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) is a top U.S. national security priority.”
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“In the hands of terrorists, criminals or other nonstate actors, MANPADS pose a serious threat to passenger air travel, the commercial aviation industry and military aircraft around the world,” said the assessment by the department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. “The United States is working closely with numerous countries and international organizations to keep the skies safe for all.”
It said the international effort has destroyed more than “32,500 excess, loosely secured, illicitly held or otherwise at-risk MANPADS in over 30 countries” since 2003.
U.S. counterterrorism officials have raised alarms about the chaotic aftermath of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s ouster in 2011. Gaddafi’s military forces were believed to have been in possession of as many as 20,000 Russian-made MANPADS.
Last year, CBS News reported that U.S. officials were unable to secure thousands of the shoulder-fired missiles, many of which are believed to have gone loose through militant smuggling networks in Libya’s east. CBS cited an unnamed but “well-placed source” who said hundreds of the missiles had been tracked as having gone to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), an Algeria-based Sunni Muslim terrorist group.
Sensitivity toward the threat became heightened in Washington following 9/11 and escalated in 2002 when, according to the State Department assessment, terrorists fired two MANPADS missiles at a civilian jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. Both missiles missed. A year later, a cargo jet transporting mail in Iraq had one of its fuel tanks hit by a MANPADS missile but was able to return to Baghdad airport and land safely. Then, in 2007, a MANPADS missile connected with a cargo plane over Mogadishu, Somalia, killing the entire crew of 11.
Such incidents prompted debate in Washington during the mid-2000s over proposals to require all commercial airline jets flying through the United States to be outfitted with their own infrared (IR) missile defense systems capable of neutralizing incoming shoulder-fired projectiles.
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There was some support for the initiative on Capitol Hill. But a 2006 Congressional Research Service report cited a host of arguments against the measures, such as serious costs associated with attaching defense systems to commercial planes, as well as “the fear that they may promote perceptions that flying is not safe.”
Cost estimates ranged “between $1 million and $3 million per aircraft” at the time, according to the report, with data pointing to roughly 5,575 passenger aircraft that would have to be outfitted with the technology — a number that has only increased over the past decade.
As a result, U.S. government efforts have focused more on beefing up security around airports both inside and outside the United States and collaborative, multigovernment initiatives toward preventing the movement of loose MANPADS into the hands of known terrorist organizations.
MANPADS were originally designed for national military forces in dozens of countries. With some 20 nations having produced them for use or sale over the years — including the United States, Russia, China, Egypt, Iran and others — the 2011 State Department assessment said more than 1 million had been manufactured worldwide since 1967.
Mr. Roggio, who edits The Long War Journal at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told The Washington Times on Thursday that it was still “too early to tell” exactly what had caused the downing of the Malaysia Airlines flight over eastern Ukraine.
But he emphasized that the development can more likely be linked to conventional fighting between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian military forces in the region than to terrorism-linked jihadist militants in the Middle East or North Africa.
“Given the location of where this occurred, it seems more possible that it’s a byproduct of the Ukraine-Russia conflict rather than anything related to the jihadist threat associated with the proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles,” Mr. Roggio said.
Ukrainian authorities claimed Thursday that the plane carrying 298 people was flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) when it was hit by a missile fired from a Russian-made Buk missile system launcher.
Journalists with The Associated Press reported seeing a similar launcher near the eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne earlier Thursday. Published reports indicate that the Buk system can fire missiles up to an altitude of 22,000 meters (72,000 feet).
The missiles are not shoulder-fired but projected from a vehicle-based system on the ground.