MANPADs Proliferation in Syria

Syrian rebels teach us how to use SA-7 MANPADs

Addressing the Challenge of MANPADS Proliferation


Andrew J. Shapiro

Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs

Stimson Center
Washington, DC
February 2, 2012


“Today, I want to talk to you about our efforts to address the threat posed by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile systems, also known as Man-Portable-Air-Defense-Systems or MANPADS. Currently in Libya we are engaged in the most extensive effort to combat the proliferation of MANPADS in U.S. history. But before I talk about Libya, let me first talk a bit about why we are so focused on this threat.

In the wrong hands, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles pose a major threat to passenger air travel, the commercial aviation industry, and possibly military aircraft around the world. Not only could a successful attack against an aircraft cause a devastating loss of life, but it could also cause significant economic damage. Airline travel is critical to our interconnected global economy. Any successful attack could therefore have very harmful economic effects not only in the region where the attack occurred, but also in countries around the world.

In 2002, just over nine years ago, the world was awakened to the threat posed by MANPADS when terrorists shot two missiles at an Israeli civilian Boeing 757 in Mombasa, Kenya. If the missiles had hit the plane, the attack could have resulted in hundreds of deaths and could have had a chilling effect on international air traffic”


“Just as nuclear proliferation has been a major concern in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, so too is the proliferation of MANPADS. MANPADS were built to be portable, easy-to-use, and readily transferable, making them an ideal weapon for terrorists seeking to attack airliners. Some MANPADS are as small as four feet long, weighing less than 30 pounds. Yet, this light-weight weapon is capable of firing a missile at twice the speed of sound which can engage a plane flying as high as 15,000 feet and over 3 miles away within 10 seconds. By using infrared sensors, the first generation of MANPADS could lock onto an aircraft’s heat source to guide the missile to impact”


The most proliferated type of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile is also the first-generation of the system. It is an infrared-guided system designed by the former Soviet Union known as the SA-7. This weapon was introduced in the late 1960s, was heavily produced in the 1970s, and is the system most commonly held by terrorist groups. It is also the system that the Qadhafi regime stockpiled by the thousands. While MANPADS can vary greatly in the way they operate, they all pose a serious threat to international aviation.

Over the last decade, international awareness of the threat has grown and some important steps have been taken by the international community. For instance, regulations have been tightened on MANPADS exports. Guidelines have been established for stockpile management. And technological developments have been explored that could limit the use or the effectiveness of these weapons.

For years the United States has also worked to secure stockpiles of conventional weapons in order to prevent them from falling into the hands of criminals and terrorists. This remains one of the United States government’s top priorities.


In 2006, the U.S. government established an interagency MANPADS Task Force led by the State Department. To counter-proliferation, the MANPADS Task Force helps countries’ secure its stockpiles, maintain reliable inventories of its systems, and safely dispose of MANPADS stocks that are no longer needed for their national defense. Since 2003, our cooperation with more than 30 countries around the globe has led to the destruction of nearly 33,000 excess, loosely secured, or otherwise at-risk MANPADS.


For decades, the Qadhafi regime stockpiled MANPADS. By the time of the regime’s collapse, Libya had accumulated the largest stockpile of MANPADS of any non-MANPADS producing country in the world. Overall we estimate that the Qadhafi regime acquired a stockpile of approximately 20,000 MANPADS in the past four decades. The collapse of the regime has therefore created a major proliferation challenge for the new Libyan government, the region, and the entire international community.

In response to the crisis, the United States – as Secretary Clinton announced in Tripoli in November – has committed to providing $40 million dollars to assist Libya’s efforts to secure and recover its weapons stockpiles. We have also helped galvanize an international response to this crisis and have worked tirelessly in support of the new Libyan government.

We were concerned about Libya’s stockpiles of MANPADS well before the outbreak of fighting last spring. In fact, during the brief earlier effort to reestablish relations with Libya, MANPADS was a topic that we sought to address with the Qadhafi regime. As the Arab Spring spread and as protests gathered momentum in Libya, our MANPADS Task Force was well aware of the scope of the challenge. With our team’s experience working in other conflict countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, we also knew what to expect and we were ready to respond.