MANPADS are a widespread, yet continually underestimated, weapon system that threatens the UK armed forces and their partner nations.
MANPADS (Man Portable, Air Defence Systems) are lightweight, shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles. These are short-range systems that particularly threaten low flying and slow moving aircraft. They originated in the Cold War to provide mobile air defence for ground forces and have spread widely. MANPADS are lethal to civilian aircraft during takeoff or landing.
MANPADS have struck 40 civilian aircraft since the 1970s, causing 800 deaths and 28 crashes. According to US estimates there are 500,000-750,000 MANPADS across the world. MANPADS are also potent against military aviation, downing 269 Soviet aircraft during the Soviet-Afghan War. They are attractive to underfunded militaries, as they provide a limited form of air-defence for a fraction of costly long range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems.
Despite international efforts, MANPADS can still be illicitly distributed. Not only does corruption in many areas of the world ease the spread of these weapons, the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya rendered vast stockpiles of MANPADS unaccounted for. Likewise, the Syrian Civil War saw the dramatic loosening of control over regime stockpiles. A similar situation currently exists in Yemen.
MANPADS have also been supplied directly to terrorist groups by states. Gaddafi’s Libya supplied the Irish Republican Army with MANPADs. Iran and Syria are suspected of supplying MANPADS to Hamas and Hezbollah. Herein lies the threat of MANPADs, there are multiple illicit supply lines and a demonstrated effectiveness.
The UK armed forces needs to adopt measures to protect forces in combat environments from MANPADS. For example, the slow moving cargo aircraft that are critical to supplying forces in Afghanistan are highly vulnerable on takeoff or landing. The Taliban possess MANPADS and have targeted NATO heavy lift aircraft with them.
Further, MANPADS will be a part of any conflict in which the UK finds itself, such as a regional conflict with Iran in the Middle East. They could prove effective in frustrating efforts at deploying forces, evacuating nationals, and targeting allied nations. Iran manufactures its own MANPADS which have seen successful use with the Houthis in Yemen. Likewise, MANPADS could prove especially lethal to UK partner nations currently fighting terrorist groups in Africa. Nigeria’s operations against Boko Haram are aided greatly by their airpower, and MANPADS could frustrate this advantage.
This is also the case with Al-Shabaab, who have attacked Kenyan forces and military installations. Al-Shabaab possess MANPADS of varying sophistication, using one to shoot down a UN transport plane in 2007. This speaks to the broader trend of developing nations with limited military capacity being on the frontline of combatting terrorism. Without a viable counter, MANPADS could degrade these nation’s airpower and mobility (a critical advantage when fighting terrorist groups).
While modern air defence systems such as the UK Sky Sabre could potentially intercept MANPADS with its Common Anti-Air Modular Missile, this was designed to target cruise missiles and guided munitions, so it is unclear whether MANPADS are considered. Sky Sabre is also limited by its 25km range, which renders it unable to protect aircraft providing close air support and troop transport. Increased funding is needed to provide training and develop systems which can be shared with partner nations, and operated with minimal ground support on vulnerable aircraft. Such systems include electronic countermeasures (ECMs) and infrared countermeasures (IRCMs).
While these can be effective, they struggle against multiple coordinated volleys of modern missiles. Their patchy usage among the forces of developing nations leaves much room for improvement. The current enthusiasm for developing countermeasures to drones can provide a launchpad for renewing efforts to develop effective counters to MANPADS.
In addition to developing countermeasures, the UK should also pursue a policy campaign to drive the greater control of these systems. The Wassenaar Arrangement’s Elements for Export Controls of MANPADS is a welcome development in this field as it imposes strict regulations on participating states relating to the manufacturing, storage, and export of MANPADS. Nations who possess or manufacture large numbers of MANPADS, such as China, Egypt, Iran, North Korea and Pakistan, are, however, not party to it. The UK should actively seek to encourage their involvement.
Additionally, the implementation of ‘buyback’ programmes such as those carried out by the US during the Iraq and Afghan War, and in Libya may warrant consideration. In Libya, local militias sell their MANPADS to local government, who either secure or destroy the systems. While controversial, these programmes have secured hundreds of MANPADS in the past. Their success merits consideration.. MANPADS are certain to remain an ever present threat to British civilian and military interests, and the UK must do more to secure itself and its interests in the face of this widespread threat.
Jack Sargent is Co-Head of Agora’s Defence & Security Programme