Small Wars Journal

COIN Primer - The MANPADS Republic: An Effective Means to Establish Regional Sovereignty

COIN Primer - The MANPADS Republic: An Effective Means to Establish Regional Sovereignty

Andrew Narloch

While addressing the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in 2003, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that "no threat is more serious to aviation” than Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS).[i] In the past 16 years the gravity of his words has not diminished. In this month alone, there have been three attempts to target US military aircraft with MANPADS. One of these was a near miss from an Iranian patrol boat, while a second scored a hit on a US Global Hawk surveillance drone in the Strait of Hormuz. Another aided in the downing of a MQ-9 Reaper by Iranian backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.[ii] While these incidents may be attributed to an escalation of tensions between Iran and the US, they demonstrate an important issue; that rogue states or even non-state actors can establish a degree of local airspace autonomy against a global power through the acquisition of relatively cheap, portable shoulder fired missiles.

MANPADS are surface-to-air missiles that can be carried and fired by a single individual. In the 1950’s, MANPADS were designed by the United States and Soviet Union to be used by national military forces to protect their troops against close aerial attack. Currently the most common MANPADS in non-state hands utilize infrared seekers that acquire their target by detecting the heat of an aircraft’s engine. Unlike most weapon systems, MANPADS require minimal training to be used effectively by the average foot soldier. They are roughly five feet in length and weigh under fifty pounds. This makes them extremely easy to conceal, transport and distribute covertly. Basic models can attain a velocity of Mach 2  and are capable of striking aircraft flying at altitudes up to 15,000 feet at a range of up to 3.2 miles.[iii] MANPADS can be purchased on the black market for as little as $5,000 USD for a first generation heat-seeker, with newer platforms costing up to several hundred thousand USD.[iv] Since 1998, over 84 non-state armed groups from 40 countries have acquired these guided light weapons worldwide.[v] Because of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the proliferation of these missiles has grown to unprecedented levels, which has made their origins difficult to trace. Due to the ability of MANPADS to pass unrecognized through borders and checkpoints, they fulfill Mao Zedong’s ideal of attacking the enemy at many points, leading to the perception of a larger threat and giving the rebels a definitive psychological advantage.[vi]  No current weapon system matches MANPADS for their mobility, low accountability, military capability, or cost.[vii]  For these reasons, it is the ideal weapon to be utilized by anti-government forces and their sponsors.

What makes MANPADS the most effective tool for insurgents and freedom fighters alike is the versatility of the weapon to help fulfill several basic requirements for a successful guerrilla campaign.  Mao implies in his treatise On Guerrilla Warfare that  “there is very little hope of destroying a revolutionary guerrilla movement after it has survived the first phase” of development.[viii] To reach this goal, guerillas must establish remote bases which enables a sustained campaign of  sabotage, terrorism, and political manipulation.[ix]  The portability of MANPADS allows them to be easily trekked to isolated staging areas as a basic air defense layer. Through the denial of close air attack, which includes both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, these shoulder fired missiles fulfill a critical need for the guerrillas. Examples of successful deployment in this manner has been demonstrated by Chechen rebels, Kurdish forces in Iraq, and the secessionist states in Myanmar.[x] This platform afforded these groups air protection, which is necessary in establishing a safe haven for eventual self-governance.

MANPADS are also effective in helping established insurgencies successfully overtake government-held areas. This was exemplified by their role in protecting mobile offensives during ISIS’s rapid spread by successfully countering exposed Iraqi and Syrian attack aircraft.[xi][xii] In addition, MANPADS have demonstrated a capacity to disrupt airlifted aid to a conflict zone, as seen in Angola with the downing of a UN Transport Aircraft.[xiii] This resulted in resources being cut off to the general populace, furthering dependence on the insurgency and delegitimizing the pro-government forces. Aside from directly supporting an attritional military conflict, MANPADS have the ability to achieve a significant political victory when targeting civilian aircraft that contain government officials. Such was the case in Rwanda in 1994, where the president of both Rwanda and neighboring Burundi were killed by militants seeking to destabilize the government.[xiv] While a successful attack on a political target can prove devastating, international and domestic feelings of instability can come from even one attempted missile targeting of civilian aircraft.[xv] Thus, MANPADS serve many critical needs which are necessary for the establishment of a burgeoning rebel state in the modern world.

MANPADS continue to be a significant threat to low flying ground support aircraft throughout the world. Most countries do not have the capacity for effective high-flying counter insurgency air operations to negate this menace.[xvi] Despite efforts by the United States and the international community, the proliferation of these weapons remains unabated.[xvii] As technological advancements are made,  the improved range, speed, and guidance of MANPADS will become a greater threat to destabilizing governments and  in protecting the territorial gains of non-state actors.[xviii] Mao once said “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”;[xix] for the insurgent today, it now comes via the smoke trail of a shoulder fired missile.

End Notes


[i] Beveridge, Dirk, "APEC Nations Agree to Limit Missile Sales," Associated Press, 18 October 2003.

[ii] Binnie, Jeremy, and Jane. “CENTCOM Says Iranian MANPADS Fired at UAV.” CENTCOM Says Iranian MANPADS Fired at UAV | Jane's 360, https://www.janes.com/article/89306/centcom-says-iranian-manpads-fired-at-uav

Trevithick, Joseph. “Iran Tried To Shoot Down U.S. Reaper Drone Near Tankers Hours Before Attacks: Report.” The Drive, 14 June 2019, www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/28534/iran-tried-to-shoot-down-u-s-reaper-drone-near-tankers-hours-before-attacks-report.

Axe, David. “Iranian Revolutionary Guard 'Shoots Down U.S. Drone' in Gulf Crisis.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 20 June 2019, www.thedailybeast.com/mq-4c-drone-iranian-revolutionary-guard-shoots-down-us-drone-in-gulf-crisis.

[iii] “MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2017.state.gov/t/pm/wra/c62623.htm.

[iv] Stratfor. “Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems: A Persistent and Potent Threat.” Stratfor, Stratfor, 1 Feb. 2010, worldview.stratfor.com/article/man-portable-air-defense-systems-persistent-and-potent-threat.

[v] “Armed Groups and Guided Light Weapons: 2014 Update with MENA Focus.” Small Arms Survey - Home, 28 May 2019, www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/highlights/highlights-2015/highlight-rn47.html.

[vi] Mao, Zedong, and Samuel B. Griffith. On Guerrilla Warfare. Martino Fine Books, 1961. 24

[vii]“Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller) Program Acquisition Costs by Weapons System.” Department of Defense, 2019, comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/Documents/defbudget/fy2019/FY2019_Weapons.pdf.

Kelly, Terrence, David C. Gompert, and Duncan Long, Smarter Power, Stronger Partners, Volume I: Exploiting U.S. Advantages to Prevent Aggression. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1359.html.

[viii] Mao, Zedong, and Samuel B. Griffith. On Guerrilla Warfare. Martino Fine Books, 1961. 27

[ix] Mao’s three phases can best be characterized as 1) Organization, consolidation and preservation of regional bases. 2) Progressive expansion, protracted conflict. 3) Conventional destruction and strategic victory.

Mao, Zedong, and Samuel B. Griffith. On Guerrilla Warfare. Martino Fine Books, 1961. Print 20-21

[x]“Iraq Crisis: Arming the Kurds.” BBC News, BBC, 15 Aug. 2014, www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28803715.

Cunningham, Erin. “Kurdish Militants Reportedly Shoot down Turkish Security Forces Helicopter.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 14 May 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/05/14/kurdish-militants-just-challenged-turkish-air-power-in-a-major-way/?utm_term=.4a7b2b987056.

“IGLA 9K38 / SA-18 / GROUSE SURFACE-TO-AIR MISSILE.” CIA.Gov/Library, www.cia.gov/library/abbottabad-compound/65/65B127CBF02A4667D8A8A229D6A5E87BIGLA.pdf.

Lintner, Bertil. “The United Wa State Army and Burma’s Peace Process.” United States Institute of Peace, 2019, www.usip.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/the_united_wa_state_army_and_burmas_peace_process.pdf.

[xi] Modern aircraft for the most part can limit their exposure to MANPADs by through high altitude sorties or using countermeasures. As experienced by the Russians in Syria this can impede operational tasks, like close air support, forcing pilots to fly within range of a successful MANPAD launch.

[xii] Semple, Kirk, and Eric Schmitt. “Missiles of ISIS May Pose Peril for Aircrews in Iraq.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2014, www.nytimes.com/2014/10/27/world/middleeast/missiles-of-isis-may-pose-peril-for-aircrews.html.

Gibbons-Neff, Thomas. “Islamic State Has a Guide to Shoot down Apache Helicopters with MANPADS.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 Oct. 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/news/checkpoint/wp/2014/10/28/islamic-state-has-a-guide-to-shoot-down-apache-helicopters-with-manpads/.

[xiii] Press, The Associated. “Angola Accuses Guerrillas Of Downing U.N. Airplane.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 28 Dec. 1998, www.nytimes.com/1998/12/28/world/angola-accuses-guerrillas-of-downing-un-airplane.html.

[xiv] “MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2017.state.gov/t/pm/wra/c62623.htm.

[xv] Chow, James, et al. “Protecting Commercial Aviation Against the Shoulder Fired Missile Threat.” RAND, RAND, 2005, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/occasional_papers/2005/RAND_OP106.pdf.

[xvi] This was a critical component of the asymmetric strategy employed by Hamas (Lebanon War 2006), Mujahedeen (Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan), and Iraqi military (Desert Storm) when facing overmatched adversaries.                             Jane’s Artillery & Air Defence, 590-592; McGregor, “Hezbollah’s Tactics and Capabilities in Southern Lebanon,” Jamestown Foundation, August 1, 2006                                                                                                              Wright, Robin. “The Loose ‘Shoot and Scoot’ Missiles and the Threat to Aviation.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 14 Dec. 2018, www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-loose-shoot-and-scoot-missiles-and-the-threat-to-aviation.       Matsumura, John, John Gordon IV, and Randall Steeb, Defining an Approach for Future Close Air Support Capability. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2017. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1233.html.

[xvii] Due to their inherent threat they pose, attempts at controlling Manpads by the United State are coordinated through the MANPADS Task Force which assists countries to “secure their stockpiles, maintain reliable inventories of their systems,” and to safely dispose of non utilized MANPADS.

“MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2017.state.gov/t/pm/wra/c62623.htm.

[xviii] “MANPADS: Combating the Threat to Global Aviation.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 2009-2017.state.gov/t/pm/wra/c62623.htm.

[xix] Mao, Zedong, and Samuel B. Griffith. On Guerrilla Warfare. Martino Fine Books, 1961. 12

About the Author(s)

Andrew Narloch is currently a graduate student at Georgetown University's Security Studies program concentrating in terrorism and sub-state violence. This past year, he worked for the Department of State on the MANPADS Task Force, which is the US government’s primary platform for counter MANPADS proliferation efforts.