American Airlines Flight 970 was supposed to be routine, a two-hour hop from Managua, Nicaragua, to Miami International Airport. The only thing different about the scheduled flight leaving from Augusto Cesar Sandino International Airport on March 31, 1993, was that it was carrying senior-level Nicaraguan diplomats. Just before the plane was to take off, airport authorities received an anonymous telephone call threatening to shoot down the Boeing 727 with a shoulder-launched missile.
The plane was kept on the ground until security crews could sweep the area by foot and helicopter for any suspicious activity. The authorities had plenty of reason for concern -- the caller had said the plane would be shot down with a "Redeye" missile. Redeyes, the first American-made, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, had been captured by the Russians at the end of the Vietnam War and subsequently shipped to the Cubans, who then funneled them to Nicaragua's communist Sandinista regime.
In the end, the flight took off without incident, but the incident unnerved airport authorities and American Airlines, who realized that they were virtually powerless against the invisible threat. It also showed how close to home the threat of shoulder-launched missile attacks against passenger jets has come.
In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, aviation experts warn that shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles could be used against American passenger jets in the future. Terrorist organizations like Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network are already believed to own such missiles, and some say it will only be a matter of time before they filter into the U.S. -- if they haven't already.
So-called Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS, are capable of knocking a jet out of the sky from as far as five miles away and at an altitude of up to 13,000 feet in as little as 13 seconds. Those aboard often have no warning before the missile explodes as it slams into an engine, air-conditioning unit or other heat-producing device on the aircraft.
In addition to American-made Stingers -- currently in the news because hundreds were supplied by the U.S. to the mujahedin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979 -- there are also Russian versions of the technology, including the Strela and IGLA series missiles. Highly accurate, easy to use and conceal, they are readily available on the black market around the world.
According to a 1997 CIA report, shoulder-launched missiles were used 27 times against civilian aircraft in the last 19 years, resulting in 400 casualties. A 1994 State Department report offers a slightly higher figure -- 536 fatalities of passengers and crew as a result of 25 civilian aircraft incidents involving MANPAD missile attacks. A Department of Defense report released in 2000 goes a step farther, stating that "one of the leading causes of loss of life in commercial aviation worldwide has been from MANPADS attacks, with over 30 aircraft lost."
Most of the incidents have been concentrated in Africa and the former republics of the Soviet Union, but there have also been attacks in Near East Asia and Central America.
The prospect of a domestic antiaircraft missile attack has captivated American minds for several years now. Speculation that a Stinger was behind the explosion that downed TWA Flight 800 was so great that the Pentagon even launched several of the missiles off the coast of Florida during the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation of the crash in order to disprove those theories.
The threat to commercial aviation first emerged in 1973, when Italian police arrested five Palestinian terrorists armed with antiaircraft missiles as they waited to shoot down an El-Al plane in Rome. But the first actual launching of a MANPAD missile at a commercial aircraft came in November, 1975, in the skies above Angola, according to a report published by the Pentagon's Joint Technical Coordinating Group on Aircraft Survivability.
Among the most widely publicized incidents involving commercial aircraft were the downings of two Rhodesian Airlines flights in 1978 and 1979 over what is now Zimbabwe, using Russian SA-7 missiles. The attacks resulted in the deaths of at least 111 passengers and crew.
In 1993, according to the State Department, a TU-154 aircraft in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia carrying 100 passengers, including a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, made a crash landing at the airport in Sukhumi after being struck in midair by a heat-seeking MANPADS missile. Only 26 of the passengers were able to escape before the plane exploded into flames on the runway, killing everyone left on board.
In the decades since the missiles first emerged, various government agencies have become increasingly alarmed by the threat they pose.
Gary Stubblefield, who heads the security firm Vantage Security and has testified before Congress about the threat of terrorism, describes the shoulder-fired missiles as "aviation's dirty little secret."
In April, Air Force Gen. Charles T. Robertson Jr., the commander in charge of the military's "heavy lift" services, responsible for transporting troops and weaponry to hotspots around the world, told a Senate subcommittee that MANPADS "are the most serious threat to our large and slow-flying air mobility aircraft. These systems are lethal, affordable, easy to use, and difficult to track and counter."
Robertson has good reason for worry. Despite the fact that some military planes carry sophisticated sensors to detect a MANPADS attack, and can deploy countermeasures to help defend against them, 12 of the 29 aircraft lost during the Gulf War were lost to MANPADS attacks, a recent RAND Institute study noted. Civilian aircraft are virtually defenseless in the face of an antiaircraft missile attack.
Although loath to discuss this threat publicly, officials in a variety of federal agencies have been aware of the danger for decades.
"Probably my greatest concern, every day, is the threat posed by the increasing global proliferation of man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS," Gen. Robertson told the Senate Armed Forces Committee last May. "We know that MANPADS are available and are likely in the hands of our terrorist adversaries."
Both the State Department and the Congressional Research Service have drawn the same conclusion. In remarks before the International Rescue Committee in 1998, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright warned, "We are also pressing to conclude an agreement to control the export of shoulder-fired missiles, which too many terrorist groups, criminal syndicates and narco-trafficking organizations possess." In a 1999 report to Congress, the Congressional Research Service offered what is perhaps the most ominous missive yet -- that it is "highly likely" that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida terror network have acquired MANPADS.
If so, bin Laden and al-Qaida wouldn't be alone. At least 27 guerrilla and terrorist groups already have access to MANPADS, a recent report in Jane's Defense Review alleged. "It is logical to assume that bin Laden's al-Qaida network is in possession of additional MANPADS. If this is true, then al-Qaida represents the most significant threat to international civil aviation. Given bin Laden's specific threats against U.S. citizens, this threat is especially relevant with regard to U.S.-owned airlines," the Jane's report concluded.
Others believe attacks on American carriers would most likely happen abroad. "Given the porosity of our borders, it is possible for such weapons to be smuggled into the U.S.," says William Hoehn Jr., a terrorism expert and professor of international affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "But I would guess that the greater MANPADS danger to U.S. civil aviation is still from takeoffs and landings overseas."
Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown acknowledges the weapons' viable threat to civil aviation, noting that the FAA has "clearly considered it." Brown says the FAA established a special task force on MANPADS. The interagency group -- which included representatives of the Department of Defense, the FAA and the intelligence community -- issued a classified report in 1998. Since that time, despite the government's concerns about antiaircraft missiles, no major changes have been made to either commercial aircraft design or in-flight operations to reduce the risk to travelers from a terrorist intent on shooting down a jet.
Steps can be taken to make commercial aircraft less vulnerable to MANPADS. Gulfstream Aviation, a manufacturer of corporate jets, already offers an infrared countermeasures (IRCM) package as an option on its aircraft. Other measures that can be taken include attaching flare dispensers, installing "sacrificial" nozzles onto engines, locating infrared sources in less vulnerable areas of the aircraft, keeping flight control hydraulics away from likely hit locations, separating fuel systems from likely hit locations and hardening or shielding critical components around infrared sources.
During a classified briefing in 1999, FAA official Raymond Schillinger described the government's research into identifying aircraft and airport vulnerabilities. A subsequent report released by the National Defense Industrial Association, a organization representing major defense corporations, described Schillinger's briefing as "a sobering presentation that described FAA studies regarding the MANPADS threat to commercial and transport aircraft."
The report also noted that "the FAA's research and experimentation indicate a definite need to reduce vulnerability to MANPADS. The small size and portability of these missiles make them a lethal threat, especially in takeoff and landing corridors. Since there have been no confirmed incidents in the U.S., it is difficult to convince aircraft manufacturers and airline companies of the potential cost benefits to making the aircraft less susceptible and less vulnerable to MANPADS ..."
How vulnerable does that leave America's airlines? "If terrorists [in the U.S.] had them, they could use them against buildings, airliners, etc.," warns Ivan Eland, a terrorism expert at the Cato Institute's Defense Policy Studies program. "There is very little the authorities could do about it."
Dr. Todd Curtis, creator of AirSafe.com and a former Air Force officer and Boeing safety analyst, cautions that if there were a "dedicated person (who) wanted to shoot down a plane, there's nothing to stop them."
A handful of major American airliners contacted multiple times during the reporting of this article -- including United, Northwest, Continental, Southwest and others -- refused comment when asked by this reporter about the vulnerability of commercial airliners to missile attacks. Numerous calls to the Airline Pilots Association went unreturned.
Peter Foster, spokesman for the Air Canada Pilots Association, was less reserved. The danger of a MANPADS attack, he says, is "a constant threat to the air system, no doubt about it." Foster also stated that this danger "has not been considered in (commercial) aircraft design."
MANPADS missile systems first gained widespread fame in the war between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. During that conflict, Soviet forces were running roughshod over Afghan defenders until the United States began supplying the anti-Soviet mujahedin with Stinger missiles. These MANPADS have been credited with turning the tide in that conflict against the Russians. Of the more than 900 stingers supplied to the mujahedin, many were never fired and remain in the arsenals of various groups in Afghanistan, despite a reported $55 million CIA effort to retrieve them.
Many of the Stingers have fallen into the hands of the Taliban, which has long been secreting bin Laden. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers last month estimated that the Taliban possesses between 200 and 300 MANPADS.
The security threat is not limited to regions where MANPADS are traded on the black market. They also represent a possible danger inside the U.S. After undertaking a comprehensive inspection of U.S. military storage depots, the General Accounting Office concluded that inventory control of military MANPADS stockpiles is so poor that hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of the weapons are unaccounted for.
The GAO report raised another serious question about the safeguarding of America's Stinger stockpile. During the Gulf War, citizens of other countries were involved in the transport of U.S. Stingers on unguarded trucks. One Army official quoted by the GAO said that it would be "pure luck" if none of the missiles were lost. "Lax military oversight (has left) these missiles, which are in demand by terrorists and drug dealers, vulnerable to threat," the GAO concluded in its report.
In addition to the U.S.-supplied Stingers in Afghanistan, newer and more sophisticated MANPADS are now being produced by former Warsaw Pact nations. All kinds of MANPADS have been flowing into the world's underground arms markets, where their black market cost is under $100,000 -- well within the reach of many deep-pocketed terrorist groups.
In the mid-1990s, the U.S. became so concerned with the proliferation of MANPADS that it lobbied hard for the adoption of global export controls. As a result of the campaign, the U.S. and other countries adopted the Wassenaar Arrangement. Though it does not restrict the sale of MANPADS, Wassenaar does promote the "transparency" of arms sales as a way to curb inappropriate transfers of weapons.
"We put the lid on the box, but before we did, a lot of them (MANPADS) got out of the box," a State Department official who asked not to be named concedes.
But Wassenaar's greatest weakness lies in its inability to thwart black-market sales. "Many countries besides the U.S. have manufactured MANPADS, including Russia (from former Soviet designs), France, Germany, the U.K. and others," says Georgia Tech's Hoehn. "The former Soviet Union sold them widely to most of its client states, including Iran and Iraq -- as we did to our allies and to the Afghan rebels. I suspect they are almost as readily available on the 'secondary arms markets' as land mines, only more expensive," he says.
Even if MANPADS are only sold to legitimate governments with the intention of their being used for self-defense, there is no guarantee that they will remain secure. In 1998, soldiers in the former Soviet republic of Georgia staged an uprising against the government of Eduard Shevardnadze and seized a cache of the shoulder-fired missiles. Whether by stealth or force of arms, if one is determined to obtain the missiles, they are available -- and they are small enough for a terrorist to easily smuggle into any country, including the United States.
We've already had close calls.
Federal law enforcement agencies have recently arrested a handful of people trying to smuggle MANPADS in and out of the United States in high-profile cases. Two of the most recent events occurred near Miami. In 1997, a group of smugglers from the former Soviet Union was arrested for attempting to ship a load of MANPADS into the U.S. from Bulgaria. When federal agents arrested the men in Florida, fortunately, the missiles were still in Bulgaria.
More recently, on June 12, federal officials arrested two men in an arms deal sting operation -- an Egyptian and a Pakistani, both from New Jersey -- in a warehouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., on charges that they intended to export a wide variety of sophisticated weaponry, including American-made Stingers. The day of their arrest, the two suspects inspected a MANPADS missile at the warehouse and allegedly expressed interest in selling missiles to a foreign country. Later, an attorney for the Egyptian man at the center of the case, Diaa Mohsen, quoted in the Palm Beach Post, said the weapons would most likely have gone to the Republic of Congo or Pakistan.
Although law enforcement officials have had success in stopping the import of MANPADS into the U.S., it may only be a matter of time before terrorists outsmart officials. A recent Rand Institute study suggested that if terrorists took their cue from drug smugglers along the porous U.S. border, the future could be grim.
"Hundreds of thousands of people cross the U.S. border illegally every year, and individual drug shipments into the country are often as large as tens of tons," said the Rand study. "There is no reason to believe that a sufficiently motivated adversary could not duplicate the accomplishments of immigrants and drug smugglers. Indeed, a nation or terrorist group might hire smugglers for their expertise." In theory, they could smuggle weapons as easily as the tons of cocaine they bring in every year.
When asked about the potential threat of smuggling identified in the Rand report, U.S. Customs Service spokesman Kevin Bell conceded: "More (drugs) get in than we can guess, and I would think that would be the same situation [with respect to MANPADS]."
The White House, meanwhile, recently ushered a major package of security measures through Congress. But President Bush's own spokespeople admit that those measures will not eliminate the risk posed by MANPADS to air travelers. When asked by Salon what steps the White House is taking to reduce the threat of missile attacks, spokesman Ken Lisaius referred to comments made previously by press secretary Ari Fleischer. "Ari stated that the threat (to travelers) had been diminished, not that the situation is threat-free," Lisaius said.
Dr. Robert Pfaltzgraff Jr., a professor of international security studies at Tufts University's Fletcher School, warns that the threat is the logical outcome of the global proliferation of MANPADS. "We should not discount the possibility that they are in the United States and may be used," he cautions.
"We're in deep trouble."