Felled plane re­news U.S. wor­ries of mis­sile strike

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

The down­ing of a pas­sen­ger plane over East­ern Ukraine Thurs­day rekin­dled longheld fears in Wash­ing­ton about threats posed to commercial air­craft by shoul­der­fired 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, ground­based 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 an­ti­air­craft 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.”

“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 Rus­sian­made 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.

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.

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