August 14, 2003

August 14, 2003 | WebMemo on

Facts About the Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat

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The August 12 successful interception of an attempted arms sale of a shoulder-fired Igla SA-18 missile, capable of downing commercial aircraft three miles in range and two miles in altitude, has ignited new concern regarding the safety of citizens' air travel in an environment of terrorist threat. A realistic assessment of such a danger and an effective response to the threat should be developed within the context of the following facts:

  • Missiles' effectiveness requires substantial training. Although such weapons -man-portable air defense system (MANPADS)-are fairly inexpensive and are widely available in the black market, effective use of such missiles requires significant training, which terrorists typically lack. The use of shoulder-fired missiles that targeted Soviet helicopters during the Afghan conflict in the 1980s is not equivalent to attacks on moving jet liners, which are vulnerable only during take-off or landing (at altitudes if 3,500 to 4,000 meters). Furthermore, many of the missiles that are available are relatively old and in poor working condition, if they function at all.

  • Successful evasion is a low-cost, near-term solution to the threat. A trained pilot can be very effective in evading missiles. Thus, a relatively low-cost and efficient near-term response to the missile threat is to provide pilots and air controllers with training regarding evasion procedures.

  • Missiles can be detected through well-targeted monitoring.  Given the limited range of MANPADS, jetliners are vulnerable only during take-offs and landings and can be fired on only from certain areas. Authorities should focus on these "windows of vulnerability" in airports and monitor unauthorized personnel or utilize sensors to detect MANPAD firing so that timely evasive action can be taken. Ongoing efforts of the Department of Homeland Security to survey and identify areas of vulnerability at domestic and foreign airports should be strengthened.

  • Individual planes could be equipped with defense mechanisms against missile attacks. Many military aircraft and some commercial planes such as El Al, the Israeli airline, have the capacity to use flares and advanced technology to divert incoming missiles. Although current options for such defense are inordinately expensive given the level of the threat, submitting a request for such technology to the open market could yield less costly and more accessible defense options. The technology for such a defense already exists and effective diversion mechanisms for commercial planes need not be as robust as those for military aircraft (possibly costing as little as $200 per plane). A priority for such defense efforts should be high-threat, high-density airports.

  • Aggressive counter-terrorism intelligence initiatives and stepped-up law enforcement could interdict illegal weapons trafficking. Although thousands of MANPAD missiles may be currently available in the black market, aggressive counter-terrorist intelligence and law-enforcement initiatives, such as Container Security Initiative (CSI) and Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) could effectively and proactively reduce risks.

  • Stepped-up research and development for counter-strike capability could substantially lower the missile threat. Robust research and development of high-tech counter-weapons, such as the mobile tactical high-energy laser (MTHEL), could yield effective and cost-efficient means to protect airports and other critical infrastructure from a spectrum of short-range threats. Efforts within the military to develop such technology are, even now, yielding significant results.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Jack Spencer Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity