Grimly suited for terrorist attacks, thousands of small, powerful, shoulder-fired missiles, each capable of blowing the wing off an airliner, have gone missing from Moammar Gadhafi’s arsenals.
In the shambolic chaos of post-war Libya, looted missile stockpiles represent an unintended, but potentially catastrophic, consequence of the conflict.
Even a handful of the missiles would be worth a small fortune on black arms markets. High stacks of empty cases that once housed hundreds of modern, sophisticated, Russian-made missiles have been found piled high in Libyan arms warehouses. But the missiles are missing.
“Surface-to-air missiles can take down civilian aircraft,” Human Rights Watch warned in an urgent call for international efforts to track down and secure the missing weapons.
British, French and (according to some reports) U.S. teams are on the ground in Libya, searching for and, perhaps, ransoming the missiles before they can be sold to extremists groups.
Although Libyan arsenals were prime targets during the seven months of air strikes by western warplanes, the empty cases and missing missiles starkly illustrate that some of the vast Libyan stockpiles are now unaccounted for.
Known as “manpads” for ‘Man-portable, air-defence systems’ the deadly effectiveness of the tube-fired missiles first came to prominence a generation ago when Afghan mujahedeen using U.S. supplied “Stingers” destroyed scores of Russian helicopters and aircraft. The Stingers were key weapons in defeating the massive Soviet efforts to pacify Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“There are ringing indicators that some Manpads …. have left the country,” warns U.S. Army Gen. Carter Ham, the senior America commander in Africa. U.S. politicians who have received high-level security briefings echo that grim assessment.
Among the missing missiles are unknown numbers of SA-24 Grinch, a modern, Russian-made version of the Stringer. Its sensitive heat-seeking system can detect the hot exhaust of a jet from 10 kilometres away and then, flying supersonic speeds quickly overtake it. The small, powerful warhead is sufficient to destroy an engine and, sometimes, tear the entire wing off an airliner.
Passenger aircraft would be most at risk just before landing or just after takeoff, close to airports.
Libya’s transitional council has said securing loose weapons are a top priority but much of the country is now awash with arms.
Military aircraft carry counter-measures to defeat heat-seeking missiles, launching flares to decoy and divert them. Israel is developing a defensive system for airliners that uses a laser to “blind” the heat-seeking. But it is unproven, expensive and only in the testing phase.
But none of the tens of thousands of commercial airliners carrying millions of passengers every day currently have any defences against manpads.
Last week a flurry of reports claimed Libyan manpads were near the Egyptian-Gaza border where a warren of tunnels is used to smuggle contraband and arms to the Hamas-controlled Palestinian enclave.
But missing Libyan missiles would pose a far greater threat to heavily-laden, low-and-slow airliners just after takeoff than Israeli military aircraft over Gaza.
So far, the size of the Libyan arsenal hasn’t been determined, let alone how many missiles may have survived the air war.
“We believe that thousands of manpads were destroyed during NATO operations because weapons bunkers were a major target,” said Andrew Shapiro, a senior U.S. State Department official.
Even a few dozen in the hands of al-Qaeda cold create havoc.