MANPADS and Small Arms Control

Tasneem Jamal

Kenneth Epps

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2004 Volume 25 Issue 3

The unsuccessful attempt in November 2002 to shoot down a civilian passenger jet leaving Mombasa, Kenya brought widespread attention to the threat of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). Since then, the US government has led efforts to build a multilateral response to this class of small arms and light weapons (SALW), based on concern that attacks on commercial aircraft may become more common acts of terror. The threat of MANPADS-based terrorism is real, with the US State Department estimating that since 1978 a total of 600 people worldwide have died in 24 commercial aircraft crashes attributable to these weapons – all in war zones. However, during the same period, deaths due to the wider scourge of small arms and light weapons have totaled millions, and if the political will to control MANPADS were extended to all SALW proliferation and misuse, it could make a substantial contribution to global efforts to address the daily terror from small arms.

MANPADS are “surface-to-air” missile systems, designed so that an operator can fire missiles at aircraft from the ground. Since they were introduced in the 1950s there have been several, increasingly sophisticated generations of the weapon, but most involve a tube-like launcher firing a rocket-propelled guided missile. The weapon typically uses infrared guidance technology to remotely guide the missile towards the heat of aircraft engines or a radio signal or laser-aiming system to allow the operator to target the aircraft from the ground. The best known MANPADS are the US Stinger and the Russian (and former Soviet Union) Strela and Igla. However, the Small Arms Survey 2004 (p. 81) notes that currently there are at least 15 companies and consortia in more than 15 countries that produce the missile systems, many of them copies of the US or Russian systems. An estimated 105 countries stockpile MANPADS.

MANPADS are classed as light weapons. Like other SALW, the missile systems are often cheap, easily carried and concealed, and readily available. There are at least 100,000 (Small Arms Survey 2004, p. 83) and possibly in excess of 500,000 systems in worldwide inventories, including several thousand thought to be outside government control or vulnerable to theft because of poor government controls (US GAO 2004, p. 2) The former include US Stinger systems still unaccounted for 20 years or more after they were supplied by the US CIA to Mujahideen forces (including forces led by Osama Bin Laden) fighting Soviet troops in Afghanistan.

The concern that MANPADS are in the hands of, or can easily be acquired by, non-state groups intent on downing civilian and military aircraft has led the US, and to a lesser extent Russia, to push for a range of global measures to reduce the risk of MANPADS attacks. These include efforts to protect civilian aircraft from attack as well as initiatives to improve controls on the possession and transfer of the weapons. In August the US Department of Homeland Security awarded two contracts totaling $90-million to investigate the adaptation of military MANPADS countermeasure technology to commercial aircraft. (Even US government officials are skeptical of the outcome, noting the excessive projected costs for the airline industry – as much as $10-billion a year – as well as the challenge of the growing sophistication of MANPADS systems.) As part of efforts to reduce the leakage of missile systems from poorly controlled government stockpiles the US has also pressured several countries to destroy surplus stockpiles, and provided them with financial assistance to do so. This has led to the recent elimination of almost 8,500 MANPADS stocks in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Liberia, Nicaragua, and Serbia, with commitments by these and four other governments to destroy at least 1,500 others (US GAO 2004, p. 19).1 In November 2003, US Secretary of State Colin Powell praised Nicaragua’s program of stockpile destruction, noting that “the missiles did not provide security for Nicaragua” and that Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños should be lauded for “encouraging the region’s other heads of state to reduce their defense expenditures” (US Dept. of State 2004).

The US has led diplomatic efforts to improve controls on the international transfer of MANPADS. In December the UN General Assembly approved the expansion of the UN Register of Conventional Arms to add MANPADS as a new category in the “missiles and missile launcher” group. Although a voluntary register, the UN listing could provide needed transparency on which countries export, import, or hold the missile systems. By mid-2004 UN members had begun providing MANPADS data. (For example, the Netherlands and Hungary reported the size of their MANPADS stocks in 2003.)

Earlier in 2003 the Wassenaar Arrangement group of 33 nations that includes all major arms suppliers (except China) agreed to “apply strict national controls on the export of MANPADS.” The agreement called for adherence by member governments to several export control principles, including export approval by senior policy officials, the provision of end-use certificates by importing states, a separate license for each transfer, the prohibition of brokers in MANPADS transfers, and guarantees against diversion. The principles also called for assistance as necessary to states for the safeguarding or destruction of missile stockpiles. The Wassenaar principles were cited by the G8 Summit in June 2003 and by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in May 2004 in its “OSCE Principles for Export Controls of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems.” The G8 Summit declaration also called for a ban on transfers of MANPADS to non-state end-users.

Led by concerns about the threat of MANPADS against its civilian and military aircraft in Chechnya, Russia also has pursued improved multilateral transfer controls. In November 2003 Russia gained the agreement of all governments (except Turkmenistan) in the Commonwealth of Independent States (states formerly in the Soviet Union) on measures to control the international circulation of MANPADS. The agreement establishes new common standards in arms export controls in the region, including mechanisms to share information on transfers.

The multilateral initiatives to better control MANPADS stocks and transfers are far from comprehensive. A May study by the US government’s General Accounting Office notes that much remains to be done to implement the agreed measures and points out that the US itself needs to take steps to better monitor the end-use of Stinger missiles. However, there is little doubt that the attention brought to the MANPADS weapons class has resulted in the elimination of thousands of the systems and has advanced the transparency of missile exports, imports, and possession. With ongoing pressure from the US and other governments it appears likely that export controls on MANPADS will improve.

As with anti-personnel landmines – another class of small arms and light weapons – the example of MANPADS demonstrates that with sufficient political will, and the provision of tangible resources, the international community can mount a program to reverse the proliferation and misuse of some categories of small arms and light weapons. The challenge is to bring the same will and resources to bear on other SALW categories, such as handguns and assault rifles, that perpetrate so much violence around the world.



  1. The GAO study cites the destruction of 8,155 by May 2004. Nicaragua reported destroying an additional 333 in August.


Small Arms Survey 2004, Small Arms Survey 2004: Rights at Risk, Oxford University Press, New York.

United States General Accounting Office 2004, “Further Improvements Needed in U.S. Efforts to Counter Threats from Man-Portable Air Defense Systems,” (GA-04-519), May.

United States Secretary of State 2004, Washington File, “U.S. praises Nicaraguan campaign to destroy missiles,” August 17.

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