Proliferation of MANPADS missiles in Syria a threat to the world

The proliferation of portable anti-aircraft missiles in Syria could lead to large numbers of civilians being killed if the militant groups use them against passenger planes.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a group that said last year it had split from al Qaeda, but nevertheless retains its hardline Islamist ideology, shot down a Russian Su-25 warplane over the Syrian province of Idlib this month, using a shoulder-held missile. The United States strongly denied allegations that it had supplied the missile, known as a MANPADS (man-portable air defence system).

“It is extremely worrying that these weapons have fallen into the hands of terrorists,” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dimitri Peskov said.

We asked Hakan Kılıç, a Turkish military aviation specialist and writer for the aeronautics website Kokpit Aero the implications of MANPADS falling into the hands of non-state armed groups.

What are MANPADS and what is so special about them?

“MANPADS are a type of air defence missile that one person can carry and fire. They are short-range, heat-seeking weapons … and they are most effective against aircraft flying at low altitudes. MANPADS is actually a general term for this type of weapon. The United States, Russia, and China all manufacture their own versions, for example, the American Stinger and the Russian SA-16/18/24.

“MANPADS used to cost millions of dollars to produce, but today we are hearing that older models can sell for $200,000, and ordinary people and organisations can purchase them -  $200,000 may seem cheap, but MANPADS are very difficult to get hold of. There’s not any country that that just hands these weapons to some organisation. If they do, they risk serious consequences.”


Although it is known that some countries engage in black market arms trading, why do most avoid selling MANPADS?

“What president or prime minister would take the risk? There is the possibility of these weapons being used against them. Let me give an example. Let’s say Germany gives MANPADS to the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), and some PKK members see how much money they’re worth and secretly sell them to Islamic State militants. Given the situation in Syria now, someone can go and sell those to someone else for $10 million. Then let’s say that buyer gets into Europe by boat, goes up onto a rooftop that happens to be near Cologne Airport, or worse, a crowded city square in any European city, and shoots down a plane. He can kill hundreds of people, but who would be held accountable? No one except the Russians gives the weapons they produce to any organisation.“


A lot of people are saying that groups in Syria have MANPADS that were given to them by the United States. How do you explain this?

“The PYD (Democratic Union Party) and PKK have MANPADS given to them by the United States and Russia. The United States gives away missiles they bought from former Warsaw Pact countries, but not ones they produce themselves because if those missiles made their way to another organisation and were used to blow up a New York airport, there is no one in U.S. leadership who would have to admit anything; they could just wriggle out of it by saying “Those were not our weapons.” But if it were their own weapon, a Stinger for example, I think even the president would be removed from office.

“On the other side there is Putin. When a MANPADS took down a plane in Russia, Putin knew that there was no one to bring anyone to account, so he wasn’t worried that a Russian weapon hit a Russian plane. But if it had been hit with an American stinger, all hell would have broken loose.”


What is the military significance of MANPADS in Syria?

“MANPADS are not a very strategic weapon for armies because they are intended to defend against low-flying aircraft. Our F-16s, for example, never really go below 20,000 feet. If they did, there would have been a lot more planes lost in Afrin ...

“They are used by NATO forces to defend against attacking low-flying planes, helicopters, or drones. This is why MANPADS are not going to have much of an effect on the outcome of the Syrian war. However, during the Russia-Afghanistan war, it’s not an exaggeration to say that thousands of Russian planes and helicopters were shot down by Stingers that the U.S. gave to the Mujahedeen.”


What sort of dangers can MANPADS present in the future?

“In a tank attack, maybe three people will die, and if the tank hits a train carriage, 100 at most would get killed. But a terrorist firing a missile at a civilian plane from a rooftop can kill hundreds of passengers in 10 seconds. There are no missile warning systems in civilian planes. If a military plane can’t always defend itself against MANPADS, how can a civilian plane? This is precisely why Turkey never gives them to the groups it supports, because it’s impossible to know where they’ll end up.

“MANPADS are going to make big trouble for the world because they’re starting to be distributed unchecked. In Syria, I find it very dangerous that the United States and Russia are giving them to the PYD. Russia doesn’t care now, but they will understand if these weapons pass to an anti-Russia organisation and shoot down a plane in Moscow. Ditto for the United States.”


Are there MANPADS in Turkey? What is NATO’s stance on MANPADS for Turkey and other member states?

“There are Stingers in Turkey that were manufactured in the past in partnership with the United States and a few NATO countries. Later, some domestic companies adapted them for use on different types of armoured tactical vehicles, and they were put into service with names like Zıpkın (Harpoon) and Atılgan (Daredevil). After that, they were sold for export.

“Every year, American officers go to the countries that have stores of Stingers, Turkey included, and count them. They are counted by one U.S. officer and one officer from that country. This way, they can check whether the Stingers have been given to another country or organisation. You even have to notify NATO if Stingers will be used in drills. NATO doesn’t just do this for Turkey, it’s for all member states.”


Which countries are the leading manufacturers of MANPADS? Does Turkey have any future plans to produce its own MANPADS domestically?

“The United States, Russia, and China all produce their own MANPADS, but we can say Russia is the leader in this. Right now in Turkey, there is the National MANPADS project, and this will continue.

“Turkey built a low-altitude air defence system called Hisar (Fortress). There is also a mid-altitude defence system. These are not carried on someone’s shoulder, but instead, they are large missiles loaded onto a vehicle. In the cap of the Hisar, there is an infrared heat-seeking guidance system that works on the same principle as MANPADS, so if you can make this step, it wouldn’t be difficult to make a MANPADS … The only difficulty that remains is the software that goes with it, but I think in a few years, Turkey will release a MANPADS.”


Lastly, what do you think about drones? Could drones be a threat in the future?

“Drones are not a weapons system. They are very small aircraft that were designed for civilian use. But in my opinion, they will be a big problem in the future. Even in Turkey, over 10,000 drone licenses have been issued. We’ve all seen the videos where a man attaches a rifle to a drone and mows down a bunch of mannequins, and another where someone puts a single-shot pistol on a drone and shoots a statue from several meters away. There was even a situation at Atatürk Airport where a passenger plane narrowly avoided getting hit by a drone.

“Around the world there have been a few planes whose wings have been hit by drones. Drones flying around unchecked have an increased possibility of hitting civilian planes in the future and this is already happening more and more. Drones may seem like a hobby or a toy, but they need to be restricted. It should not be as easy as it is to buy and sell them.”