The Risk in America's Skies

By Rachel Ehrenfeld

Speaking at the Institute for National Security Studies, at Tel Aviv University, former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, issued a serious warning about the international threats posed by man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) in the hands of al-Qaeda and its ilk. Petraeus referred to the January 27 downing of an Egyptian military helicopter by a Russian Strela-2 missile (aka SA-7) by al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in the Sinai Peninsula. "Shooting down a helicopter with an apparent shoulder-fired missile is a big deal.... Our worst nightmare [was] that a civilian airliner would be shot down by one," he said.

Petraeus explained that "the concern over an attack on civilian aviation flows not only from the loss of passenger's lives, but also from the likely economic consequences that would follow-a worldwide grounding of air traffic that might bring the global economy to a screeching halt."

Gen. Petreaus is right to be concerned. The threat of MANPADS in the hands of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups has escalated dramatically. The fall of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya, on October 20, 2011, exposed a cache of 20,000 MANPADS of which only 5,000 were reportedly destroyed. Where the remaining 15,000 missiles are is unclear.

The Obama administration has issued a statement intended to assure Americans that most of Libya's weapons, including shoulder-fired MANPADS, have been secured. However, NATO's then-military committee chairman, Adm. Giampaolo di Paola, was not so sure. His fear that Libyan MANPADS could be scattered "from Kenya to Kunduz [Afghanistan]" subsequently materialized.

A year after Gaddafi's fall, Israeli officials reported that an SA-7 had been fired at one of their military aircraft over the Gaza Strip. Around the same time, Syrian rebels captured several of the Assad government's MANPADS. And, in October 2013, "Dutch charter airline Transavia has cancelled flights to ... Sharm el-Sheikh in the restive Sinai peninsula [because of] threats from the ground in the Sinai area."

On January 16, 2012, a leader of the Bedouin Tarabeen tribe in the Sinai Peninsula told CNN, "We have smuggled thousands of shoulder-launched SAMs (surface-to-air- missiles) to Gaza through the tunnels for a transporting fee only ... and we saved some for us."

On March 2012, Aviation Week reported that MANPADS from Libya, including the advanced Russian made SA-24 Grinch SAMs, "were apparently smuggled to Iran where they were then sent to Iran's proxy force, Hezbollah, in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip."

Evidence that al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) has been training its fighters to use Gaddafi's SA-7 MANPADs was discovered in 2013, not by intelligence services, but by the Associated Press. It reported that a "Dummies' Guide to MANPADS," written in Arabic, was discovered at an abandoned police station converted to a "Jihad Academy" in Timbuktu, Mali.

Indeed, growing jihadi activities in the Sahel have elevated threats to energy installations in not only Mali, but the entire region. They now jeopardize European oil and gas supplies, as well as the economic and political stability of West African countries.

How many Libyan and Syrian MANPADS have been stolen is unknown. Many now could be in the hands of avowed terrorists. These deadly, man-portable missiles have a 10,000-ft. range and can easily target civilian aircraft, during takeoff and landing.

Nevertheless, U.S. security experts argue that the threat to America's civil aviation fleet posed by MANPADS is minimal, and the cost of equipping passenger aircraft with MANPADS countermeasure devices -- estimated at roughly $43 billion -- is prohibitive and unjustified. 

However, if a single missile ever found its way to Latin America -- where groups like Hezbollah already have ties -- and was then smuggled into the U.S. and fired at one of the more than 7,000 aircrafts comprising the U.S. civilian fleet, the struggling U.S. economy would be devastated in a flash. And this time, U.S. government officials and airline executives could not claim they were unaware of the threat. This time, they would be held responsible for hundreds of deaths.

Hundred's of millions of American taxpayer dollars, have been spent to develop systems that counter MANPADS and protect civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. American and European defense industries developed countermeasures for both military and civilian aircrafts. However, the most advanced, well-tested, lightweight system available today is the Multi-Spectral Infrared and laser Countermeasure system (MUSIC or C-Music, C-Music-mini and MUSIC DIRCMs on Boeing B737, B747, B757, B767, B777 and Airbus A320 platforms) manufactured by Elbit Systems, an international defense electronics company, based in Haifa, Israel.

Measuring 2.7 meters, the system's hardware can be installed on an aircraft's exterior or inside the fuselage. An externally mounted C-Music pod weighs only 190 kg (418 lb.) and can be transferred to another aircraft in about 40 min. A lighter variant (160 kg or 352 lb.) is designed for carriage inside an aircraft.

The proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles, which can cost as little as $5,000 a piece on the black market, is a real threat to U.S. commercial aviation. Protection is needed now, and viable countermeasures are available today. If the U.S. government refuses to act, insurance companies should demand that airlines install these protective systems. Airline owners would resist, claiming that the cost is prohibitive, though their customers -- the flying public -- would probably be willing to trade higher ticket prices for assured protection from missile attacks. But the flying public has not been made aware of the threat ... and has not been asked.

Rachel Ehrenfeld, Director of American Center for Democracy, is author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed - and How to Stop It.

(AP Photo)

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