Unholy Grail: Small Device, Big Hassle – Patterns Of MANPADS Threat Projection By Non-State Actors

By Jahangir Arasli, Non-Resident Scholar, INEGMA

On April 6, 1994, a Falcon 50 executive jet, prepared to land in the Kigali airport, Rwanda,and was hit by two shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, presumably the Russian-made Strela-2 (NATO reporting name – SA-7 Grail). All 12 people onboard died in the crash, including the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. The attack unfolded a chain of events which eventually precipitated in one of the major human disasters of the last century – the Rwandan genocide. Notwithstanding the underlying causes that led to genocide, that particular act of terrorism illustrates, how Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems or MANPADS, applied by non-state, sub-state or rogue actors, may trigger major effects. Consequently, the purpose of this short essay is to review the evolution of the phenomenon, associated with the proliferation of MANPADS among non-state actors, analyze current trends, assess potential developments, as well as measures aimed at containing and countering the threat. This essay is not intended to address the battlefield use of the weapon in question in the context of insurgency, since this aspect deserves an independent analysis.

Evolution of Threat: From Air Defense to Ground-Borne Attack

MANPADS were designed in the 1960s to equip the tactical field units of the company up to the battalion level and providing them a cover from low-altitude attacking aerial targets. By the beginning of the next decade, MANPADS were adopted by the major armies of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Almost simultaneously, both camps of the Cold War started to supply these weapons to their non-state proxies around the world. Early in 1973 marked the first ever use of MANPADS by non-state actors, namely the guerrilla forces, fighting for the independence of Guinea–Bissau from Portugal and supported by Moscow. Quite rapidly, MANPADS proliferated around the world, becoming by end of the 1980s, such as the Afghan mujahedeen, who received and used hundreds of Stinger missiles to mitigate Soviet air capability.

The profound shifts in the global security environment in the late 1980s – early 1990s that led, in particular, to the rise of the violent non-state actors’ phenomena, especially in terrorism, insurgency and intrastate armed conflicts, have altered, among many other things, the utility of MANPADS. While still remaining a valuable air defense asset, MANPADS have attained another sinister dimension, being converted into an effective tool of ground-borne attacks against civilian aviation.

Factors contributing into ascendance of the mentioned MANPADS threat are diverse. One was the emergence and rise of the global jihadist current, otherwise known as al-Qaeda and associated movements which are aimed at use of any available means to cause the maximum possible political and economic damage to the West. Other factors became the demise of the USSR and Yugoslavia that opened up the armories, lax arms export policies, and intended proliferation by spoiler-states like Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. The “shadow globalization,” has particularly resulted in the growth of arms black markets and increased connections and cooperation between different non-state actors, including accelerating the circulation of MANPADS. The reported exchange of MANPADS between the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), or between the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) represent a clear indicator of this trend.

By the beginning of the 21st century no less than 27 non-state groups, operating in four continents, were maintaining hundreds of MANPADS of nine different types, according to Jane’s Intelligence Review estimate issued in September 2001. A Pentagon study, in 2004, suggests that between 500,000 and 750,000 missiles of the class were produced and subsequently deployed, sold or stored worldwide. No less than 150,000 of that numbers are falling, according to another Jane’s estimate, at the disposal of non-state actors. The latter hold predominantly weapons of the Soviet/Russian Grail family and its descendants (SA-7/-14/-16/-18), their Chinese, North Korean, Romanian, Yugoslavian, Pakistani and Egyptian replicas and derivatives. The worldwide spread of Grails makes them a true “Kalashnikov of MANPADS.” There are also less significant numbers of Blowpipes (UK), Stingers (USA), RBS70s (Sweden) and Mistrals (France) in non-state actor possession.

The MANPADS already have reaped a harvest of deaths in the zones of intrastate armed conflicta around the globe, particularly in Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Colombia, and the former Soviet Union. In the fluid, often chaotic and rapidly changing operational environment of the hybrid conflict, MANPADS were extensively and indiscriminately used by actors against all kind of targets emerging in the sky, be it the military or civilian, as is indicated by the following examples.

The 1990s served as the decade of the MANPADS. On January, 1992 the MI-8 Hip civilian helicopter, belonged to Azerbaijan Airlines, was brought down over Shusha in Nagorno-Karabakh region of Azerbaijan by the Armenian separatist paramilitary forces, killing more than 40 civilians onboard. On December 14, 1992 the Russian MI-8, participating in evacuation of civilians from the conflict zone in Abkhazia, was shot down by a Georgian missile (56 killed). The Abkhazian separatist forces, from their side, in two days of September 1993 destroyed two Georgian airliners – a TU-134 and a TU-154 – engaged in supply airlift to Sukhumi, the besieged regional capital (up to 150 killed, both civilians and military personnel). In April 1995, just in two days, the Tamil Tigers conducted two mass-casualty MANPADS attacks, destroying two Sri Lankan HS.748 turboprops at the vicinity of Jaffna (97 killed). In October 1998, the Boeing 727 crash in the Eastern DRC, caused by the missile attack by the Tutsi rebels, claimed the lives of 40 people. In December 1998 – January 1999 the UNITA fighters in Angola, using MANPADS ambush tactics near the airstrips, shot down three UN-chartered cargo planes, carrying humanitarian supplies (33 dead). (Strategypage.com, September 10, 2007).

Beyond the use in the war zones, yet another threat emanating from proliferation of the MANPADS became their potential application by malicious actors against civil airliners in the non-conflict environment, including the Western world. Manifestation of how terrorists could use this weapon against civilian targets came on November 28, 2002 when a Boeing 757 jet airliner operated by the Israeli airlines and carrying over 270 people onboard, narrowly escaped two missiles launched at it soon after a takeoff from Mombasa airport in Kenya. MANPADS were part of planning of high-visibility attacks against high-profile targets, which in case of success would cause high political consequences. In particular, such a pattern is highlighted by the Basque terrorist organization ETA plot to shoot down the Spanish monarch’s plane (2004) and an attempt to kill the Prime Minister of Cote D’Ivoire while in the air (2007). In addition, not only civilian aircraft are attractive targets for terrorists, but also military assets that are equally unprotected while operating in non-combat environment. In 2002, the al-Qaeda cell in Saudi Arabia allegedly was planning a missile attack against U.S. military aircraft operating from the Prince Sultan Air Base.

Features: Compact, Cheap and Deadly

The parameters contributing into increasing utility of shoulder launched SAM for the actors in the realm of terrorism and terrorist insurgency are as follows.

Compactability. Constructively, MANPADS combine functions of missile launch and guidance in the same compact unit. It is served and operated by a two member crew, though the same could be done in hardship even by a single person. Size provides portability and mobility: a SA-7 unit (weights 13.6 kg, 1.5 m-long) is freely placed in the golf tool kit and moved fast from one firing position to another. Size also acts as tactical multiplier for operators, making them possible to use the protective environment in the area of the intended terrorist attack (vegetation, buildings’ roofs or windows, moving trucks, etc). The launchers and missiles may be relatively easily stored in the cache, or covertly transported across the region or between regions.

Simplicity. These devices are relatively easy to use. Average training time of a MANPADS operator is five weeks, including practical launches; however, if a simulator is available, a required duration of training reduces to three weeks. Rising proficiency and skills of non-state actors, enabled by the Internet and the CD software, as well as a possibility of outsourcing (i.e., hiring of professional missile operators) increase further attractiveness of the weapon among interested actors. MANPADS maintenance and storage do not require too complex procedures. MANPADS have short reaction time: to bring a firing unit into combat readiness with its subsequent use against airborne target takes just a few minutes.

Lethality. Characteristics of MANPADS’ guidance systems (infrared, optical or laser) ensure high probability of hitting a target at altitudes up to 13,000 feet. The missiles’ impact, normally, falls at aircraft’s engines that possess hot signatures. Thus, the most common pattern of attack is a tail engagement targeting engines’ exhaust with a infrared (IR) seeker. Suffice it to note, that evasive maneuver, common for military aircraft, by definition is excluded, for the commercial airliners, due to their performance characteristics, while potential use of IR countermeasures or electro-optical jammers often are impossible since it affects urban areas surrounding most of civilian airports worldwide. Consequently, a hit at an airliner’s engine by, for instance, a SA-18 Grouse missile (weight of warhead is 1.17 kg), especially during take-off or landing, guarantees a high probability of engine’s destruction and subsequent disaster. The same is true for civilian helicopters. Wide-body four-engine airliners are less vulnerable in this regard; still, a mere fact of such attack would make the terrorists able to “show flag” and promote their cause.

Availability. MANPADS are widely available for non-state actors from black markets and accessible through supply pipelines. The arrests of the arms smugglers groups in Hong Kong (2002), the USA (2003), as well as Monzer al-Kassar (2007) and Victor Bout (2008), reveal just the tip of an iceberg, while major part of the illicit arms trade networks, engaged into proliferation of MANPADS, remain obscure. Beyond the wide offer, the major factor ensuring interest to shoulder launched missiles becomes their relatively low cost. Depending on conditions, prices for a single unit are ranging from $50,000 (for SA-7) to $250,000 (for Stinger), though in some bargaining and dumping cases it might be as cheap as $5,000 apiece.

Virtual Threat Projection: “MANPADS In-Being”

It is no sensation any more, when warnings on the expected terrorist attacks using MANPADS against civilian aircraft are issued, based on the vague and sometimes exaggerated information obtained from “reliable intelligence sources.” For instance, on November 24, 2003, the Boeing-767 of the Israeli airlines en route from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles with 193 passengers on board, was diverted to the secondary airport in Toronto, Canada due to an urgent intelligence on an “imminent” attack with a MANPADS. On October 29, 2005 the French security service warned on the likelihood on attack in Europe with the SA-18 missiles “smuggled from Chechnya,” based on tips from a captured al-Qaeda operative. Next year a similar “crying wolf” alert was issued in regard of the “expected” attack against Israeli airliners in the Geneva international airport. Not one of these and many other warnings proved to be true threat.

However, in recent years false alarms generated by hoax threats is becoming a sustained trend. It is safe to state that it became part of political, psychological and economic warfare, waged by the al-Qaeda and its affiliates against the West. Use of such pattern by the jihadists lead to resources depletion, growing security services and law enforcement agencies’ fatigue, affects transportation and tourist sectors of economics, maintains psychological pressure on societies. The necessity of taking technical countermeasures (CM) to proof jetliners vice the threat posed by MANPADS is costly; only equipment’s research, design and development takes millions and millions of dollars from the treasury, not to mention the mere implementation. For example, a single Flight Guard CM suite costs nearly $1 million apiece.

Such multifaceted damage is achieved by perpetrators through almost insignificant effort and spending, such as issuing open or veiled threats via the jihadist websites, or other public propaganda posturing. For instance, the Ma Wara’ an-Nahr unit of the Islamic Jihad Union (i.e., the Central Asian jihadists) in May 2009 issued a propaganda video, where its members were wielding SA-7. On a side note, the Internet has emerged as a huge enabler, where the shadowy terrorist group, consisting in real life of few radicalized youngsters, could engineer a completely virtual “plot” which, nonetheless, would be seriously taken by the security services, further extracting their overstretched resources, and the airlines, already suffering from global recession.


MANPADS occupy a very special niche in the set of terrorist threats. Their successful use may lead, at least, to the loss of innocent lives, and, in some circumstances, generate even major strategic effects. It represents an ultimate weapon of choice in asymmetric warfare, due to its utility, availability, and lethality.

Airlines remain a preferable target and center of gravity for terrorists. A spectacular attack, especially with multiple victims, is a dream, at least, of some actors, who will seek and test different ways. This suggestion is particularly proven by the events of the recent years – the Transatlantic “liquid explosive plot” (July – August 2006), the Detroit Christmas “skivvy bomb plot” (December 2009), and most recently, the Dubai “parcel plot” (October – November 2010). By constantly searching for security flaws and loopholes, the bad guys demonstrate their ability to evolve, adapt and innovate. What remains the same is a willingness to kill, and at some point the intentions may meet the capabilities.

Virtual threat projection based on the Internet and media manipulation of the MANPADS’ factor will likely be growingly embedded into political, propaganda, ideological and psychological warfare, waged by jihadist movements against the West and individual states. It will increasingly contribute to the rise of associated cost, emanating from the need to take precautionary measures. That indirect cost may emerge as a primary, rather than a secondary effect of MANPADS.

Counter-MANPADS should be regarded as an essential part (a sub-discipline) of civil aviation security, equally to air marshals, explosives detection, passengers profiling, cargo screening, training in hostage rescue, and other operational, technical, and political aspects. Close international cooperation is a key for advancement on this track.

Yet, here is the critical point today. Despite all these scary details, why have terrorists not yet (almost) tried to use MANPADS more often? Why has no major attack been attempted since the 2002 Mombasa incident? Is it because of successful international countering efforts? Or, was the threat too overstated? An example of such political and media exaggerations are found in the notional story surrounding the Afghan mujahedin’s Stingers. There was no confirmed use of these missiles against civilian planes or transfers to the third parties, while their IR seeker coolant, batteries, and propellant are technically out of power by now.

A possible answer is the following: A lack of event is not an evidence of absence of threat. So far, it was a combination of factors which led to such a state. However, a window of vulnerability of one side is, at the same time, a window of opportunity for another. In a certain moment of time, when circumstances are perfect, wild cards and “unknown unknowns” meet at a certain point, the small deadly missiles will find their big prey. Paraphrasing the famous IRA’s adage, we need to be lucky always, while them – only once. MANPADS day, five launches, five continents, may be forthcoming in the future and it would be prudent to think about this scenario.



INEGMA is a Free Zone Limited Liability Company based in Dubai Media City, in the United Arab Emirates. Established in 2001, INEGMA was set up to provide media organizations, think tanks, non-governmental organizations, militaries and governments of the Middle East, and international private companies with various services related to military and strategic affairs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *