Countering the proliferation of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) – or shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles – has been a top U.S. national security priority for decades. In the hands of terrorists, criminals, or other violent non-state actors, MANPADS pose a serious threat to air travel, including both commercial and military aircraft, around the world. On February 17, 2021, the U.S. Chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s (OSCE) Forum for Security Cooperation (FSC) convened a security dialogue, where the U.S. drew attention to this complex and dynamic international security challenge. They also discussed how we could work more effectively with our allies and partners to curb illicit MANPADS proliferation.
MANPADS were first developed in the 1960s to help armed forces defend key terrain against military air strikes. Since 1970, however, terrorists and other non-state actors have struck dozens of civilian aircraft, including passenger airliners with these shoulder-fired missiles. These are small, portable, easily concealed weapons that have the power to kill hundreds of people with one shot.
The virtual security dialogue provided an overview of the impact of MANPADS proliferation on European and international security. Panelists highlighted recent evidence that non-state armed groups are increasingly fielding more technologically advanced systems, in addition to widespread proliferation of earlier systems in the OSCE countries. Several OSCE countries are facing threats from non-state groups in possession of MANPADS, and the OSCE region has seen several of the most recent uses of MANPADS in conflict zones. These developments require a renewed focus on this threat: MANPADS proliferation respects no borders or walls and must be met with collective action from the international community. Only collective action will prevent a potential attack from disrupting the global security landscape.
In her remarks at the security dialogue, Karen Chandler, Director of the U.S. Interagency MANPADS Task Force, noted that since 1973, 65 incidents involving the use of MANPADS on civilian aircraft have killed more than 1,000 civilians. Though 2020 marked the 13th consecutive year without a MANPADS attack on a civilian airliner, Ms. Chandler warned of the need for continued focus on these threats, since violent non-state actors are still seeking to acquire and use these shoulder-fired missiles. She also iterated that many of these groups have successfully deployed them against military targets, as seen in recent years in Libya and Syria. While the vast majority of MANPADS attacks happened in conflict zones, the portability of these weapons, as well as the increasing sophistication of newer generation systems, pose a serious risk to civilian aviation, threatening both lives and global commerce in non-conflict zones.
The U.S. is actively working to counter MANPADS threats by destroying excess, loosely secured, or otherwise at-risk state-held stocks; improving physical security and stockpile management practices; training border security guards and other law enforcement agencies to counter illicit proliferation; and monitoring the possession and use of MANPADS by non-state actors. The February 17 security dialogue resulted in consensus among OSCE members on the need to adopt relevant OSCE best practice guides and to increase transparency and information-sharing.
The MANPADS Task Force (MTF) coordinates a comprehensive approach to countering illicit MANPADS proliferation and reducing the threat of those held by terrorist groups and other violent non-state actors. Several U.S. government entities participate in the MTF, including the State Department, U.S. embassies around the world, and the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Transportation.
The OSCE has a history of successful partnership with the Department of State on MANPADS counterproliferation and stockpile management. As of this year, State Department conventional weapons stockpile assistance programs have helped partner nations destroy nearly 41,000 excess, obsolete, or at-risk MANPADS and Anti-Tank Guided Missiles, including over 28,000 in the OSCE region. The United States is committed to reducing these threats worldwide and is the leading financial supporter of conventional weapons destruction, providing more than $4 billion in assistance to over 100 countries since 1993. The United States looks forward to its continued cooperation with the OSCE in destroying excess, poorly-secured, or otherwise at-risk state-held stocks, improving stockpile management, and working on joint counter proliferation efforts.
For more information on how the State Department is strengthening human security, facilitating economic development, and fostering stability through demining, risk education, and other conventional weapons destruction activities, check out our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety, and follow us on Twitter @StateDeptPM.
About the Author: Aimee Falkum serves as the Strategic Advisor to the U.S. Interagency MANPADS Task Force, in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement at the U.S. Department of State.