By Seth Berman
Recent reports suggest that the United States and its allies in the Syrian Conflict are preparing a “Plan B” that involves supplying heavier weaponry to moderate Syrian rebel groups should the current ceasefire fail to hold. These weapons would have the specific function of countering the Syrian government’s aircraft and artillery advantage (1). While it is certainly important to plan for this realistic outcome, introducing advanced weapon systems into this warzone is a particularly perilous decision that world powers need to seriously reconsider. Presently the best defense against these systems is their absence – they are not readily available or transportable to many nations where a civilian airline shoot down would cause a public uproar.
In particular, the introduction of Man-Portable Anti-Air Defense (MANPADs) into the hands of Syrian rebels – even so called “moderate” rebels – opens up the potential for these extremely dangerous weapons to fall into arsenals of extremist groups who do pose a direct threat to the civilian populations of the world. MANPADs are shoulder launcher missiles that are specifically designed to target, disable, and destroy fixed wing and rotor aircraft at a relatively low altitude. Most systems contain three main components: the missile tube, a grip, and a battery. Missile tubes are typical single-use and the batteries have limited power and storage life. The system is especially effective against aircraft as the munition is able to track the target’s engine infrared heat signatures against the sky. Proliferation of these launchers gives a terrorist an effective, easily concealable, and mobile weapon platform that is ideal for targeting civilian aviation – a historically favorite target of violent non-state actors for pressuring governments and causing fear among the public. (2)
The United States famously provided the FIM-92 Stinger to the Afghan mujahedeen to combat the Soviet offensive in Afghanistan as part of the CIA’s Operation Cyclone (3). These stingers are, with some dispute, credited with blunting the effectiveness of the feared Mi-24 “Hind” multipurpose helicopter gunships that vastly outclassed anything that Afghan guerillas could field. At the very least, the gap between Mi-24 Hind and the low-tech guerrilla represented the disparity between the two sides; without advanced weaponry aircraft are incredibly difficult to take down. Counter-proliferation polices were put in place to attempt to contain the spread of the stinger such as requiring a spent missile tube to be presented to receive a new missile; yet as many as 600 of the nearly 1000 missiles were unaccounted for after the formal end of the conflict. The CIA’s main counter-proliferation strategy mainly consisted of instituting a buy-back program that increased the black market price to outside the price-range of many poorly funded terrorist groups.
The conflicts in Libya and Syria have led to a large influx of MANAPDs to enter the inventories of non-state actors (4). These civil wars resulted in many of the weapons depots and airbases, where these systems are typically stored en mass, to fall out of the control of the local authority. Once the security of these facilities is violated and arms are allowed to spread from them, it becomes extremely difficult (if not impossible) to ensure the weapons are accounted for after a conflict. Auditors would be reliant on any recoverable documents and cooperatives sources to detail inventories – a questionable proposition and reliability in authoritarian regimes and even more so in the chaos following a violent revolution.
Proliferation of anti-aircraft weaponry into conflict zones does drastically increase the ability of non-state actors to target aviation. This has been prolifically demonstrated at least twice in the Ukrainian conflict where anti-aircraft weaponry has been used to take down large aircraft. The shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July 2014 by a Buk vehicle based surface-to-air missile system (SAM) resulted in the downing of Boeing 777, western media attention, and nearly 300 deaths (5). While the spread of these weapons is much less prevalent than MANPADs, the use of this weapon in the conflict zone shows that there are serious concerns for aviation security once unrealizable actors are using guided missiles to target aircraft. The second major incident was the shoot-down of an IlyushinIL-76 Ukrainian Airforce transport plane on resulting in the deaths of the nearly 50 service members on board while the attempting to land at Luhansk International Airport (6). This highlights two major risks: that large aircraft are vulnerable when at a low altitude (such as when landing or taking off) and that the IL-76 and similar civilian airliners can be brought down by these weapons.
Ultimately, there is the concern that if MANPADs become readily available and easily accessible to a terrorist organization then states face the real risk of civilian airliner being shot down with little to no warning. Increasing the availability and supply of these weapons outside of national inventories becomes a serious security risk to nations who are vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In 2003 a plot to target Air Force One, American commercial airliners, and the importation 9K38 Igla systems was detected and stopped by worldwide intelligence services when the perpetrators delivered an inert weapon system to an undercover agent (7) in New Jersey.
There are alternatives to providing advanced weaponry that would help balance the desire for nations to support rebel groups versus their future security:
- No-Fly Zones. Sympathetic nations that have the capability to enforce no-fly zones for regions should project their power to discourage the use of aircraft in the region. The risk of destruction of aircraft should discourage the sitting regime from using their airpower. In the event that there are unauthorized aircraft in region, the means of controlling and neutralizing that aircraft are left within the hands of stable governments. This strategy proved effective in the Libyan conflict.
- Provide Low-Tech Solutions. Instead of providing man-portable fire-and-forget weapons, the possibility of arming groups with vehicle based heavy anti-aircraft artillery should be examined. It appears that militia groups in Syria do have a limited stockpile of self-propelled anti-aircraft weapons (likely ZU-23-2 autocannons) already (8) (9). These weapons provide deterrents against helicopters and can be used as to support infantry. They provide limited capabilities against fixed-wing aircraft as they are manually aimed. As they are vehicle based, they become easier to track and harder to proliferate once the conflict ends. These weapons also do not pose a large threat to advanced air forces or civilian air traffic.
Governments who do choose to give these weapons to support their foreign policies should consider methods to safeguard them or consider alternatives. As MANPADs are advanced technology, they are reliant on their battery and computer systems to be effective. Some counter-proliferation tactics that are being considered include providing units with limited battery power to minimize the shelf life of a weapon or “geofencing” – using software and GPS to limit the geographical region in which the weapon will fire. These safeguards would definitely help minimize proliferation, but all safeguards can be overcome. Even if these weapons came equipped with safeguards to supposedly limit their effectiveness outside of the immediate Syrian conflict, these are weapon systems that should not vulnerable to acquisition by terrorist organizations. Power systems can be jury rigged to bypass the need for a battery; in fact, the Russian produced 9K32 Strela-2 in Syria have already been modified to use external powers sources (10). Geofencing is an interesting and new tool that can be used, but a software solution will only slow a resource rich and determined adversary such as ISIS. Location data can be spoof to trick the system into believing it is in Syria. With desperation comes ingenuity: no matter what safeguards are used to protect these weapons from being used against unintended targets, they remain a threat to states and the public at large.
Seth Berman is a graduate of Marist College where he received his degree in Liberal Studies. He is also a Certified Associate of Project Management (CAPM), and currently works to support the Federal Government. Please feel free to contact him on LinkedIn.
1. Entous, Adam. U.S. Readies 'Plan B' to Arm Syria Rebels. The Wall Street Journal. [Online] April 12, 2016. http://www.wsj.com/articles/usreadiesplanbtoarmsyriarebels1460509400.
2. The United States Department of State. MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems. Department of State. [Online] July 11, 2011. [Cited: April 13, 2016.] http://www.state.gov/t/pm/rls/fs/169139.htm.
3. Kuperman, Alan J. The Stinger missile and U.S. intervention in Afghanistan. . Political Science Quarterly. 1999, Vol. 114 No. 2 Pg. 219.
4. Rigual, Christelle. Armed Groups and. Small Arms Survey. [Online] December 2014. [Cited: April 17, 2016.] http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/H-Research_Notes/SAS-Research-Note-47.pdf.
5. Dutch Safety Board. Investigation crash MH17, 17 July 2014 - Donetsk. Onderzoeksraad.nl. [Online] October 13, 2015. [Cited: April 16, 2016.] http://www.onderzoeksraad.nl/en/onderzoek/2049/investigation-crash-mh17-17-july-2014/publicatie/1658/dutch-safety-board-buk-surface-to-air-missile-system-caused-mh17-crash#fasen.
6. BBC News. Ukraine crisis: Military plane shot down in Luhansk. BBC News. [Online] June 14, 2014. [Cited: April 14, 2016.] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27845313.
7. United State Department of Justice. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales Highlights Success in the War on Terror at the Council on Foreign Relations. United State Department of Justice. [Online] December 1, 2005. [Cited: April 14, 2016.] https://www.justice.gov/archive/opa/pr/2005/December/05_opa_641.html.
8. Syrian War Videos. Tracer rounds being fired from Syrian Rebel Truck mounted ZSU 23-2. Youtube. [Online] December 5, 2013. [Cited: April 17, 2016.] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bc7jjYy8do.
9. Vice News. Families on the Front Line in Syria. Youtube. [Online] March 29, 2016. [Cited: April 17, 2016.] See Timestamp 0:47-0:52. https://youtu.be/IxaAlezfWAQ?t=47.
10. Chivers, C.J. A Syrian Rebel Advance Off the Battlefield: A Longer-Lasting Battery for Missiles. The New York Times. [Online] The New York Times, July 25, 2014. [Cited: April 13, 2016.] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/26/world/middleeast/a-syrian-rebel-advance-off-the-battlefield-a-longer-lasting-rechargeable-battery-for-the-sa-7b-a-shoulder-fired-missile-system.html?_r=0.