2015 To Walk the Earth in Safety: The Interagency MANPADS Task Force

Bureau of Political-Military Affairs

Understanding the MANPADS Threat

Date: 2015 Description: Excess MANPADS are prepared for destruction in Mauritania through a NATO Partnership for Peace/Mediterranean Dialogue Trust Fund Project.  © Photo courtesy of NATO Support Agency.

Terrorists and insurgents have used man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) to fight government troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, destroy humanitarian flights in Angola and Sudan, and target civilian aircraft across Africa and elsewhere. Recently, arms traffickers and violent extremists have capitalized on the instability in the Middle East by looting MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons from state-held stockpiles in Libya and Syria. The United States is working intensively to counter the increased availability of these surface-to-air missiles, which pose a serious risk to regional stability and international security.

MANPADS are easy to transport and conceal. Some of the most commonly-produced MANPADS can fit into an automobile’s trunk, or even a large duffle bag. Most MANPADS consist of 1) a missile packaged in a tube; 2) a reusable trigger mechanism (commonly known as a “gripstock”); and 3) a battery. The tubes, which protect the missile until it is fired, are disposable. A single-use battery typically powers the missile prior to launch. On the advanced end of the spectrum of SA/LW, MANPADS missiles can achieve twice the speed of sound and strike aircraft flying at altitudes up to approximately 20,000 feet (6.1 kilometers) or out to a horizontal range of up to 3.2 miles (5 kilometers). Other types of SA/LW, including rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank guided missiles, are designed primarily for use against ground targets at closer range and are generally much less effective against aircraft. Some attacks using these weapons against aircraft flying at low altitudes and relatively slow speeds have been mistaken for MANPADS attacks.

The Interagency MANPADS Task Force – Addressing the Threat

In 2006 the U.S. government established the Interagency MANPADS Task Force to coordinate U.S. efforts to mitigate the threat posed by the illicit availability and use of MANPADS in every region of the world. Experts from relevant departments and agencies comprise the MANPADS Task Force, which facilitates programs and policies and coordinates efforts within the U.S. government and with partner nations and international organizations. For instance, the MANPADS Task Force coordinates the activities of the Departments of State and Defense to enhance the physical security and stockpile management of a partner government’s state-controlled weapons and munitions, building that nation’s ability to destroy aged, excess, or at-risk advanced conventional weapons, and securing other weapons and munitions retained for their national defense. The MANPADS Task Force also helps develop U.S. approaches with other MANPADS exporters and producers to track unaccounted-for MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons in order to reduce weapons proliferation. Such engagements are a part of U.S. efforts to stop non-state actors from obtaining and potentially using such weapons.

Since early 2011, the MANPADS Task Force has played a key role in U.S. efforts to combat the proliferation of advanced conventional weapons from Libya, Syria, and other countries suffering from internal instability or regime collapse. This requires attention to crosscutting issues such as border security assistance and related activities to counter the risk that MANPADS outside government control will move from one country to another.

A successful terrorist attack against a commercial airliner could claim hundreds of lives, ground civil aviation for days, and dramatically impact the world economy. To prevent such an attack, reducing the threat posed by unsecured or otherwise at-risk MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons remains a U.S. national security priority.