The U.S. Wants To Design Safer Anti-Aircraft Missiles for Syria’s Rebels

It’s not going very well.


With the Syrian cease-fire in tatters, the country’s battered rebels are clamoring for one thing as bombs again fall on their cities and markets: shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to strike back at the warplanes of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies.

In recent days, U.S. officials have hinted that they may be willing to provide the weapons — known in military circles as MANPADS, short for “man-portable air defense system” — with one major caveat: They include technical controls that would limit where they can be used to ensure they don’t one day fall into terrorist hands.

But the design of such weapons controls remain highly elusive. U.S. engineers aren’t known to have sorted out how to build a GPS chip into the weapon that would ensure it could be fired only on the front lines of northwest Syria. They also haven’t sorted out a way of rendering the weapons inert after a certain amount of time so they don’t show up on distant battlefields way in the future. Weapons can be hacked, and arms control experts fear MANPADS supplied by the United States might end up with militants from groups like the Islamic State, reconfigured, and then used to shoot down a civilian airliner.

It’s possible that CIA engineers have secretly built and tested MANPADS and are waiting for the right moment to deploy them. If so, the agency has remained mum. The CIA declined to comment for this article. Raytheon, which makes the primary MANPADS in the American arsenal, the Stinger, declined to comment. The Pentagon referred comment to the State Department, which declined to comment on reports of MANPADS being delivered to Syria.  

A bloody Syrian government strike on a market in the town of Maarat al-Noaman on Tuesday that killed dozens provided the latest illustration of why the rebels have been clamoring for the weapons so loudly. The provision of MANPADS would make it easier for rebels to shoot down the low-flying Syrian government planes and helicopters carrying out indiscriminate attacks with brutal weapons like barrel bombs. The missiles would also force Assad’s warplanes to fly at higher altitudes, making it harder for them to hit their targets.

“Anything you can do to force the Syrian Air Force higher is going to be good for the rebels,” said Chris Harmer, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War. “They’re going to be bombing a lot of empty fields.”

Russian planes would probably not be affected by MANPADS, which typically can target a plane flying no higher than 15,000 feet. Like their American counterparts, Russian jets can drop precision weapons from a much higher altitude.

First, though, Washington needs to build a MANPAD that it would be willing to entrust to rebel groups despite the risks of them falling into terrorist hands. It’s a serious concern: Since the invention of MANPADS in the 1960s, about 1 million of the weapons have been produced and thousands remain unaccounted for, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. Al Qaeda is believed to have some of those weapons, but the exact number of loose MANPADS is difficult to determine.

Terror groups have been trying to use MANPADS to take down civilian planes for decades. Since 1975 about 40 civilian airliners have been targeted by MANPADS, but a State Department official said the attempted shoot-down in 2002 of an Israeli passenger jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, “was a watershed moment for us” that spurred an intensified effort to track down the weapons. Since 2003, that effort has destroyed or secured nearly 35,000 MANPADS, though thousands remain unaccounted for, as evidenced by the fact that they are sometimes offered for sale on Facebook.

Making a weapon that couldn’t be used in a future terror attack represents a formidable engineering challenge, said Greg Tarr, a former weapons tester for the U.S. Air Force who has studied the question of so-called technical-use controls on MANPADS. “We have no evidence of a missile on earth today that has been developed and incorporates any type of technical-use control, especially location-based,” Tarr said.

MANPADS are meant to give ground troops taking fire from above a quick way to target and shoot down enemy aircraft, and Tarr said adding a GPS control would undermine that ability.

That’s because a GPS system needs to communicate with at least three satellites to triangulate its position. To interact with the satellites, the GPS needs to know where they are. Downloading the information can take 15 minutes. The thermal batteries that typically power MANPADS provide between 30 and 90 seconds of power — or a small fraction of the time needed to collect the information on the satellites’ positions. To use a GPS-control would probably require a redesign of the power system for MANPADS, Tarr says.

There are also far more simple controls one might place on MANPADS. An engineer might design a keypad on which a rebel fighter would have to type in a code before firing the weapon; the CIA would give the digits only to vetted rebels. Alternatively, a clock built into a chip might disable the weapon after a certain period, allowing it to be used only for the expected duration of a conflict.

A twist on the concept involves modifying batteries such that they no longer function after a certain period. But that has its own risks: Syrian rebels have posted videos on YouTube documenting how to fire MANPADS using improvised batteries.

MANPADS aren’t used only in defense, but can also be used to attack, for example, an enemy transport plane. To prevent friendly fire, many MANPADS come with an “identification friend or foe” system. The device communicates with a plane’s transponder to determine its identity. An engineer might condition the weapon’s ability to fire on positively identifying a plane as a foe. But this requires that the IFF transponder is continuously updated with the codes in use. That feature means the United States or some other friendly country would need to maintain bases near the front lines where rebels could come to pick up the new codes, Tarr says.

Notably, current MANPADS do not require the weapon to identify the plane as an enemy in order to fire at it.

Although Tarr is deeply skeptical that a tamper-proof, controlled MANPADS could be built, the analysts who have argued in favor of the weapons’ delivery to Syrian rebel groups argue that it’s an engineering challenge that can be solved.

Anthony Cordesman, a plugged-in, influential analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, proposed shipping MANPADS with a GPS-control to Syrian rebels in October 2012. He says he first came across the idea while working around the time of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which develops new high-tech systems for the U.S. military.

Cordesman refused to say whom the United States was considering providing such technology to at the time, but modifying the missiles with a GPS control struck him as a possible solution to an “obvious” problem. Small and easily transported, MANPADS can be diverted from their intended recipient, Cordesman said. Without serious technical controls on the weapons, Cordesman said it would be far too dangerous to supply the weapons to Syrian rebels.

Still, he is optimistic that advances in encryption — which might be used in a key-type system to control firing — and microchip technology make the engineering challenge of creating a modified MANPAD a feasible undertaking. For example, components can easily be made tamper-proof by designing them to shatter when altered.

But Cordesman noted that “nothing is ever really safe” and that technical controls on MANPADS are more about reducing risk than eliminating it. Their delivery to Syria now depends on whether U.S. special forces can find reliable partners on the ground. “You don’t do any of this contingency planning sitting in an armchair in Washington,” he said.

For all that hand-wringing, significant quantities of MANPADS have already turned up in Syria in the hands of rebel fighters, says Matthew Schroeder, a senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey, a Geneva-based research group. It is impossible to calculate how many such weapons have entered the conflict, but Syrian fighters have posted videos online in which they loot Syrian government stores of Soviet-made MANPADS. Subsequent videos have shown rebel forces firing the weapons, and on occasion bringing down government aircraft.

Researchers have also documented the presence in Syria of SA-7 rockets, an early Soviet model, SA-16s, and at least one Russian-made SA-24, which until recently was Moscow’s most advanced MANPAD, Schroeder said. The Chinese-made FN-6 MANPAD made its likely combat debut in the hands of Syrian rebel forces. Last month, the blog Oryx identified what it believes to be a North Korean MANPAD in Syria.

“I’d say the variety and sophistication of the systems is probably unprecedented,” Schroeder said.

But so far no American-made Stinger missiles have turned up in Syria — and that may have to do with Washington’s hard-won lessons in providing such weapons to friendly rebel groups. In the 1980s, the CIA funneled such weapons to rebel fighters in Afghanistan and Angola — and then spent the 1990s frantically trying to track them down.

For the CIA’s engineers, the question today is how to provide weapons Syria’s beleaguered rebels desperately need without spending the postwar years making a similar desperate attempt to recover them once the guns have fallen silent.

Photo credit: MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP/Getty Images

 Twitter: @EliasGroll