Friday, February 9, 2018

Syria, the United States and the Exportation of MANPADS


The recent downing of a Russian Su-25 fighter jet and the subsequent death of its pilot at the hands of Syrian rebels is actually part of a far more complex story, as is typical of things that happen in the Middle East.  According to news sources, the fighter jet was shot down by a Man Portable Air Defense System or MANPADS, a portable, shoulder-fired surface-to-air defense system designed to be carried by a single individual.   As you will see in this posting, Washington's ill-thought out desperation to rid Syria of Bashar al Assad, a favour being done, in large part, to placate its best friends in the region (i.e. Israel and Saudi Arabia) has meant that Washington has thrown caution to the wind and broken an agreement that was framed back in 2003 that was meant to protect the flying public from the misuse of MANPADS.

Let's start by looking at this video showing a FIM 92 Stinger MANPADS in operation:


According to Arms Control Association, MANPADS were first deployed in the 1960s to provide infantry soldiers with portable anti-aircraft weapons.  Since they were introduced, roughly 20 nations have manufactured an estimated one million MANPADS which are currently held (or have been held) by at least 102 nations.  The U.S. government estimates that there are currently at least 500,000 to 750,000 MANPADS stockpiled around the world, however, it is unknown how many of these weapons are operational.  Even more frighteningly, the U.S. Department of State estimates that several thousand MANPADS exist outside of state control, held by an estimated 47 non-state/terrorist groups around the world.

MANPADS have a long history of being used against civilian aircraft.  The first successful MANPADS attack against a civilian aircraft occurred on September 3, 1978 when rebels in Zimbabwe shot down Air Rhodesia Flight 825.  In 1994, a MANPAD was used to shoot down a plan carrying the leadership of Rwanda and Burundi which lead to a civil war that killed more than 800,000 Rwandans.  There have been more than 50 MANPADS attacks against civilian aircraft, mainly in Africa and Asia.  Of these, 30 have lead to a total of more than 1000 civilian deaths.

Here is a table showing the reported MANPADS attacks against civilian aircraft between 1973 and 2007:




Obviously, since these weapons are highly portable and easily disguised until they are used, the risk associated with their use by non-state actor (i.e. terrorist groups) creates a great risk for civilian airliners.   

Now, let's look back in time to 2003.  Here is a document showing how the membership of Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) planned to deal with the potential threat of MANPADS:




Note this from the agreement:

"In order to authorise MANPADS exports, both exporting and importing economies will take into account:

- The need to protect against potential for diversion or misuse in economies;

- The need to ensure appropriate measures to protect against unauthorized re- transfers, loss, theft and diversion; and

- The need to ensure adequate and effective physical security arrangements for the protection of military property, facilities, holdings, and inventories."

It is quite clear that the leadership of APEC member nations realized the high risk of exported MANPADS falling into the wrong hands.

In case you were wondering, here is a list of the member nations of APEC:


Please note that the United States has been a member of APEC since it was founded in 1989.

Now, let's move forward to the recent past.  In the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2017, the Act that authorized the Trump Administration to fund the Pentagon and its war machine, we find some interesting plans for MANPADS.  Tucked away in Section 1224 which appears on pages 1239 to 1242 of the 3055 page document (excluding signature pages), which we can be certain was read thoroughly from front to back by every member of Congress, we find this:





Let's repeat the key sentences to let them sink in:

"If a determination is made during fiscal year 2017 to use funds available to the Department of Defense for that fiscal year to provide man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) to the vetted Syrian opposition pursuant to the authority in section 1209 of the Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘‘Buck’’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (Public Law 113–291; 128 Stat. 3541), such funds may not be used for that purpose until—

(1) the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State jointly submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the determination; and

(2) 30 days elapses after the date of the submittal of such report to the appropriate congressional committees." (my bold)

Just in case you might have hoped that Congress would regret its potentially generous donation of MANPADs to Syrian opposition groups in fiscal 2017, here's what we find in Section 1039 of the most recent edition of  the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018:


Apparently, when it comes to exporting MANPADS to make your pals in the Middle East happy, there are one set of rules for America and another for the rest of the world.

Let's close with this graphic from Charles Lister showing the factions in Syria's civil war:


What are the odds that the MANPADS, generously donated to Syria's opposition forces by American taxpayers, are not going to fall into the hands of terrorists at some point in time if, indeed, they have not already done so.  While we don't know the source of the MANPADS that shot down the Russian fighter jet, we can pretty much be assured that, at some point in time, a U.S.-sourced MANPADS will make a very unwelcome appearance somewhere in the world since they do have a 20-year lifespan and are quite easily moved from one point on the globe to another.

3 comments:

  1. I recently watched some clips from the 2007 movie Charlie Wilson's War. Good film. (the connection to MANPADS) However, a reviewer connected the dots of what happened afterward: U.S. pulls out all backing, civil war erupts, the Taliban prevails, and eventually we have 9/11. I have to wonder if the powers who be fully understand the implications of their actions. They seem to be focused on today with no regard for tomorrow.

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  2. Without a doubt these are the greatest risk to the flying public and could bring the system to a halt. Planes taking off or landing have been vulnerable for years. Massive game changer. Most concerning!

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  3. US lawmakers are obviously aware MANPADs can be used to shoot down airliners in the future. Most likely it will be brown people killed, so that doesn't matter. It won't affect their chances of re-election as we already know the press don't care either.

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