WASHINGTON -- The horrifying deaths of 298 passengers of a jetliner shot down over Ukraine have focused the world's attention on a previously unrecognized threat: the proliferation of surface-to-air missiles in the hands of rogue, non-state actors.
Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was brought down by a BUK-17, a high-tech Russian-built missile designed to intercept high-speed, high-altitude combat aircraft. But the real threat may lie in the half a million low-tech, short-range antiaircraft missiles widely available worldwide -- including those held by some of the world's most ruthless militants.
These shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles (MANPADS, for man-portable air defense systems) are relatively cheap, easily hidden, simple to use and challenging to defeat. They have not yet drawn wide public attention as a threat to civilian passenger jets, but the danger is real: Since 1973, at least 30 civilian aircraft have been downed by shoulder-fired missiles, killing about 920 civilians, according to Stratfor, a global intelligence firm in Austin, Texas.
In 2007, for instance, the Somali extremist militia al Shabab used a Russian SA-18 missile to shoot down a Belarusian cargo plane that had just delivered supplies to a UN peacekeeping force in Mogadishu. The missile was fired just as the giant, four-engine Ilyushin-76 was lifting off from the city's seaside airport. The eleven crewmen were killed in the plane's fiery crash.
The U.S. intelligence community and other analysts have monitored the recent movement of modern short-range antiaircraft missiles to groups such as ISIS, the extremist Sunni insurgents fighting to expand their territory across Iraq and Syria.
"They are out there," said Matt Schroeder, an international arms analyst with Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based independent research group. "We've seen them flowing into Syria, and there are illicit MANPADS in Libya that are outside government control -- fairly recent-generation systems."
In Iraq, militants have shot down several Iraqi helicopters and even an SU-25 jet fighter, analysts said. Black-market missiles, which can be had for as little as $5,000, have turned up in North Korea and Sri Lanka. Algerian authorities have seized Russian SA-7 and SA-24 missiles smuggled in from Libya. In late January, a missile downed an Egyptian helicopter, and MANPADS have been fired from Gaza and the Sinai.
As conflicts have exploded across Iraq and Syria, militant groups have increasingly demanded more weapons, including U.S.-built Stinger missiles that were supplied to anti-Soviet rebels in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. Despite a concerted, U.S.-led international effort to secure or destroy arsenals of old MANPADS, they appear to be proliferating.
"We have seen trafficking spurt because of those conflicts," said Schroeder, who authored a major study of shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles, published last year.
MANPADS generally have far less powerful propulsion and carry a smaller warhead than the Russian missile that downed Flight MH17. This limits their effective kill zone, which for newer versions is an altitude of between 5,000 and 12,000 feet. Most rely on heat-seeking sensors designed to home in on the infrared signature of hot engines.
Military aircraft commonly carry defenses against heat-seeking missiles, usually flares ejected to draw the missile away from its target.
But most commercial aircraft carry no such defensive equipment, leaving them vulnerable to heat-seekers at low altitudes during takeoff and landing. Terrorism experts fear a scenario in which a missile is fired from a crowded urban area adjacent to a major airport at a commercial jet flying at low altitude and low speed.
That happened in 2002, when assailants fired two Russian SA-7 missiles at an Israeli Boeing 757 packed with 261 tourists as it lifted off from the Mombasa airport in Kenya. In such a case, analysts said, it is likely that the missile would detonate at or near an engine exhaust, destroying the engine. But while many commercial jets are capable of being flown on a single engine, such a catastrophic loss could leave the pilots little time to recover.
In the Mombasa case, the pilot noticed the flash off the left side of the aircraft, but both missiles missed. The incident convinced Israeli authorities to begin outfitting Israeli civilian aircraft with flare launchers and other defensive equipment.
In 2004 a DHL Airbus 300 widebody cargo jet was struck by a missile as it took off from Baghdad International Airport, but the pilots managed to bring the crippled plane safely back to the runway.
If such attacks are easy, why aren't they more common? The short answer, intelligence and weapons experts acknowledge, is that no one knows for certain.
One explanation is that many of the older missiles have become unworkable, have been lost or have been confiscated. When U.S. Stinger missiles began to leak out of Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1988-89, the CIA mounted an intensive effort, code-named "Operation Missing in Action Stinger," offering cash rewards and other inducements for the weapons.
The CIA reportedly also sent out misleading information about how to change Stinger batteries; following those instructions would disable the firing mechanism.
Still, Stingers keep turning up. In 2005, for instance, a cache of Stinger missiles was seized in Pakistan.
Another reason that MANPADS haven't been widely used outside immediate conflict zones such as Somalia and Syria is that they are valuable inside those conflicts, said Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor and a former State Department security officer and counterterrorism agent.
"These things are somewhat hard to get, so it's an important piece of ordnance not to be wasted," Stewart said. "You see guys walking in a parade with an SA-7, but not using it."
He said the U.S. has clamped down hard on international trafficking in shoulder-fired missiles by using sting operations that offer the promise of the missiles. In 2008, for instance, DEA agents arrested Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout during a sting operation in which he was promised MANPADS he could re-sell to Colombian insurgents.
International pressure also has forced countries that produce the weapons to tighten export controls.
"It's just not popular to sell out there," Stewart said. "MANPADS can be traced, and if there is a civilian airliner taken down, the last thing you want is the entire world condemning you. We're seeing that pressure against Russia right now."
If the threat of missiles against civilian airlines does grow, what about defenses?
A 2006 study by the Department of Homeland Security estimated the cost of outfitting the U.S. fleet of 5,400 jetliners with defensive systems at $43.3 billion over 10 years. Since then, the U.S. fleet has grown to almost 6,700 aircraft, putting the cost beyond consideration for an industry whose profit margin is 2.4 percent, according to airline industry sources.
"The case has not been made that the threat justifies the significant issues involved" with retrofitting defensive systems, said Perry Flint, a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association. "The cost is simply prohibitive."
But the threat persists. Despite international efforts to control the spread of these weapons, "hundreds, possibly thousands, of MANPADS looted from military facilities in Iraq, Libya and Syria remain at large," said Schroeder. "In the wrong hands, they pose an acute threat to unprotected military and civilian aircraft."