Sophisticated weapons in hands of rogue groups make commercial planes targets
WASHINGTON — In an unstable world, sophisticated weapons once only wielded by nation-states are increasingly winding up in the arsenals of extremists, rebels and other non-state actors.
Just this week, Hamas has fired long-range missiles from Gaza into Israeli cities, well-armed Islamic extremists in northern Iraq are pushing back the army, and a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet was shot down over Ukraine. In fact, commercial airliners — long targeted by militants — may be the most vulnerable marks. As these arms proliferate, it's fortunate that more of them haven't been shot down.
U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed that the Malaysian flight was brought down in an area of Eastern Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists, quite possibly by a long-range, BUK surface-to-air missile battery. These self-propelled air-defense platforms boast their own radars and have an operational range of about 72,000 feet. Journalists recently reported seeing a BUK battery in the rebel-controlled region of the crash.
Because the Malaysian airliner was flying at about 33,000 feet and in excess of 600 mph, the Boeing 777 was well out of the range of shoulder-fired, man-portable air-defense systems the Ukrainian rebels wield. But Ukrainian officials have confirmed that one of their military jets was hit by a rebel-fired manpad, although the pilot was able to land the damaged plane. In two attacks in recent months, rebels downed two military helicopters with missiles, killing 23 soldiers, including a Ukrainian general.
Stinger man-portable missiles may threaten Army crews of Apache helicopter gunships recently dispatched to Baghdad to secure the airport and defend the U.S. Embassy. Intelligence reports say the Islamic State organization, known as ISIS, likely has captured American-made Stingers. In seizing major cities such as Mosul and Tikrit, and overrunning four Iraqi army divisions, ISIS fighters have reportedly taken control of two major weapon depots, where Stingers were likely stored along with other sophisticated U.S.-manufactured armaments.
The threat that these missiles pose to civil aviation is not hypothetical. In 2002, al-Qaida-linked terrorists in Mombasa, Kenya, targeted an Israeli charter flight with 261 people onboard, narrowly missing the aircraft with SA-7 missiles.
A report by the Arms Control Association estimates that 47 non-state groups worldwide possess manpads, which have been used in 50 attacks against civilian aircraft that have killed nearly 1,000 civilians. A 2005 report by the RAND Corp. estimated the direct costs of a single successful missile attack on a commercial airliner could approach $1 billion, and ultimately climb higher to as much as $16 billion if it depressed demand among the flying public for an extended period.
“The proliferation of manpads has been a major concern for a long time, but as the custody of large stockpiles of these weapons comes into question the threat to civil aviation definitely increases,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. “The Malaysian airliner suggests that along with the manpads threat, we now have seen a much more sophisticated surface-to-air missile used to attack a civilian airliner, and that system is in the arsenal of both Russia and Ukraine,” he added. The one that hit the cruising-altitude Malaysia flight was a military grade weapon, but shoulder-mounted versions controlled by militants around the world mean that any low-flying jet in the wrong airspace could add to the death toll.
James Kitfield is a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and a contributing editor at National Journal and Atlantic Media's Defense One.
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