Stop Panicking About the Stingers

The WikiLeaks war logs only confirmed what we already know: The Taliban simply doesn't have the firepower to wreak havoc on Afghanistan's skies.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Of all the stories being plucked from WikiLeaks’ classified Afghanistan war logs, many analysts have picked out the Taliban’s use of heat-seeking missiles as the most troubling. Remembering how the mujahideen used missiles to drive Soviet aircraft from the skies, pundits worried that the Taliban would inflict a similar pain upon American planes and helicopters in Afghanistan. But for those of us who follow the illicit arms trade, the documents simply underscore what we already knew: The Taliban has failed to reproduce the devastatingly effective anti-aircraft campaign that brought the Red Army to its knees in the mid-1980s.  

Afghanistan’s storied history of anti-aircraft weapons (known as Man-portable Air Defense Systems — MANPADS) centers around the American Stinger missile, which played a decisive role in the U.S.-funded insurgency that ended nine brutal years of Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Prior to the arrival of the Stinger, none of the weapons procured and distributed to the Afghan rebels by their three main benefactors — the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia — had proven effective against Soviet aircraft, which bombed villages, attacked rebel strongholds, and strafed supply caravans with impunity.

That all changed in September 1986, when a newly trained mujahideen missile team fired its first Stingers at three Soviet Mi-24 Hind helicopter gunships attempting to land at Jalalabad airfield. Locked onto the infra-red signatures of their targets, the five-foot-long, 35-pound missiles raced after the ill-fated helicopters at speeds of over 1,500 mph, smashing into them with "the kinetic force of a mid-sized car traveling at sixty miles per hour," according to a 1987 article in the Arizona Republic. The stricken helicopters fell to the ground and burst into flames, marking the advent of a new chapter in the war.

Over the next three years, the mujahideen, who received Stingers from Washington and extensive training on their use in Pakistan, staged dozens of attacks that brought down nearly 270 aircraft, contributing in no small part to the Soviet Union’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan in 1989. While no single factor can be credited for the triumph of a rag-tag militia over the formidable Soviet military, the Stinger missile was a game-changer, destroying hundreds of multi-million-dollar Soviet aircraft, killing dozens of highly trained pilots, and disrupting and degrading Soviet counter insurgency operations throughout the country. So pervasive was the Stinger’s influence on events in Afghanistan that analysts coined a term around it: "the Stinger effect."

After the Soviet withdrawal, the U.S. government scrambled to collect the remaining Stinger missiles, fearing they could end up in the hands of terrorists. A top-secret CIA program dubbed "Operation Missing in Action Stinger" was established to buy back the missiles. Details on the classified program remain scant, but the information that is available suggests that, despite rewards of $100,000 or more for each device, the CIA failed to recover many if not most of the loose Stingers. Government officials interviewed by author Steve Coll for his book Ghost Wars claim that an estimated 600 of the Afghan Stingers were still missing as of 1996. Some of the missing missiles ended up in the hands of terrorists, insurgents, and hostile governments as far away as North Korea and Sri Lanka, but many remained squirreled away in rebel arms caches. As recently as 2005, Stingers were seized from a cache near the Pakistan border, and incidents of trafficking in Stinger components have been reported as recently as 2006.  

Today, however, there is nothing comparable to the "Stinger effect" in Afghanistan. Open-source accounts of the Taliban’s weapons suggests that, in recent years, the group has had access to limited numbers of first- and second-generation anti-aircraft weapons, including Soviet SA-7s, Chinese HN-5s, and perhaps a few early model Stingers. (It is difficult to tell from the WikiLeaks documents if the devices used were, in fact, Stingers.) In 2009, London’s Telegraph newspaper reported that Soviet SA-14s — a second-generation heat-seeking missile introduced in the 1970s — had been smuggled into Afghanistan across the Iranian border. While loose missiles of any type are worrisome, none of those reportedly acquired by the Taliban have the game-changing potential that the Stinger had in the 1980s. This assessment is supported both by open-source reporting on insurgent missile attacks in Afghanistan and the classified documents obtained by Wikileaks. Those files contain numerous reports of suspected missile attacks but very few reports of downed aircraft. One assault recounted in the war logs, for example, succeeded in downing a Chinook helicopter in 2007. But a single downed helicopter — or even 10 or 20 downed helicopters — over nine years hardly qualifies as a successful insurgent anti-aircraft campaign.

The Taliban’s fortunes in the anti-aircraft game are unlikely to improve anytime soon. The U.S. military is well-versed in this particular missile threat and has developed tactical and technical countermeasures to mitigate it. These countermeasures are not perfect, as evidenced by aircraft lost in Iraq and possibly in Afghanistan, but they appear to be reasonably effective against the MANPADS currently used by the Taliban.

That could change, of course, if the Taliban suddenly acquired state-of-the-art weaponry. But that seems unlikely. The only reason the mujahideen had access to the Stingers (which are among the most tightly guarded weapons in the world,) was a Cold War cost-benefit calculus that no longer applies. The producers of today’s most advanced shoulder-fired missiles have no compelling reason to arm the Taliban. It is conceivable that a country with an anti-U.S. agenda might be interested in giving the insurgency a boost. Still, publicly available information suggests that the least-accountable regimes (that is, the North Koreas of the world) don’t yet have access to the most advanced such weapons even if they wanted to send them the way of the Taliban. And lacking a friendly government supplier, the Taliban would have a hard time acquiring the best missiles on its own.

At least, for the time being. As more missiles are exported to countries with leaky arsenals, the likelihood that groups like the Taliban will eventually acquire more capable weapons can only rise. Securing MANPADS and other advanced conventional weapons will require vigilance, focus, and sustained commitment — not exactly something that the current panic over the WikiLeaks documents is likely to foster.

Matthew Schroeder is manager of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists.