Weapons of Potential Destruction vs. Weapons of Actual Destruction

In Libya, forces loyal to the Transitional National Council have announced discoveries of mustard gas (The Guardian) and uranium yellowcake (Reuters). The presence and location of the mustard gas (yes, the same stuff used by German forces in World War 1) was known to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) knew the location of the uranium yellowcake.  In addition to the monitoring by these international organizations, the United States was using “national technical means” (i.e., drones and spy satellites) to monitor the security of these weapons of mass destruction (WMD) (State Department).  The US did not believe these WMD posed any immediate danger because Libya lacked the means to deliver the WMD; the State Department, through spokesperson Victoria Nuland, even deplored “fear mongering” in the media about the delivery of Libya’s potential WMD by missiles and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction from Libya generally.

However, not seconds later, Ms. Nuland started to stoke the fires of fear herself by expressing concern about the proliferation of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).  Small Arms Survey describes MANPADS as “short-range surface-to-air missile systems intended for attacking and defending against low-flying aircraft… Today’s most advanced MANPADS can effectively engage aircraft at ranges up to 8,000 m[eters] (5 miles)” (Small Arms Survey, pdf). Between 2002 and 2007, thirteen incidents of MANPADS attacks on aircraft have been identified; nine against military targets, four against civilian.  Ten events occurred in Iraq and one each in Chechnya, Somalia and Kenya.  The four attacks on civilian aircraft resulted in one plane crashing with 11 fatalities, another making an emergency landing after being severely damaged and two misses (Small Arms Survey, pdf).  Perhaps the most famous incident involving MANPADS is the 1994 shooting down of the plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian presidents that sparked the genocide in Rwanda (Small Arms Survey, pdf). 

According to Ms. Nuland, the United States’s main proliferation concern from Libya’s military stockpiles is MANPADS.  The extant of possible MANPADS proliferation is unknown, Libya’s stockpile of the weapon “was not something that Qadhafi was in the business of publishing, and he was… good at hiding stuff;” but Nuland was clear that the US does not have any concerns about hidden chemical weapons or radiological materials.  The US’s concern about MANPADS proliferation comes from “scattered intelligence indicating that weapons stolen from Gaddafi’s stockpiles may have made their way to insurgents or militants in nearby countries, such as Niger, and North African nations” (Reuters).  Those “insurgents or militants” includes Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Al Qaeda branch active in Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Tunisia (Council on Foreign Relations) raising the spectre that terrorists could start to target commercial aircraft flying over North Africa.

In response to these concerns, the US has provided $3 million to Mines Advisory Group and the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action to train Libyans in the dismantling and destruction of MANPADS.  Mines Advisory Group has so far destroyed 8,000 pieces of unexploded ordnance since March 2011, including “anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, sub-munitions and surface-to-air missiles” (Mines Advisory Group).  Overall, US-funded mine action has “cleared over 450,000 square meters of land and destroyed over 5.8 tons of munitions, including five MANPADS” (State Department).  Please re-read that statement.  Five MANPADS, each of which weighs about 50 pounds, out of almost 12,000 pounds of explosive material.  In sheer weight, number and explosive capacity, other pieces of ordnance exceed MANPADS by several orders of magnitude.  Despite the high level of fear about MANPADS, as expressed by the US State Department, the reality on the ground is this: landmines are the greater threat right now.

According to one blogger:

“The number of landmines planted by Gaddafi troops in the district between Ajdabiya and Sirte towns, is estimated at 60 thousand anti-personnel and anti-armour landmines. The engineering corps of the Libyan NTC national army has cleared 21 thousand of them up to the present. The district around al-Brega is the largest land-mined zone in Libya, where many army and civilian victims were hit by landmines” (Live Libya Updates, February 17th).

The distance, by road, between Ajdabiya and Sirte is 409 kilometers, so there are almost 150 landmines per kilometer between Ajdabiya and Sirte, one every 20 feet.  Although NTC forces have cleared more than 21,000 mines (again, compared to five MANPADS), another 40,000 remain just along Libya’s coastal highway.  One estimate suggests that 18 months will be needed to clear all of the mines from around Libya’s oil infrastructure, but that would leave other minefields untouched (The Energy Report). 

Prior to the current conflict, “Gaddafi’s regime placed millions of land mines along Libya’s eastern and southern borders with Egypt and Chad… There are also millions of unexploded remnants still leftover from World War II on Libya’s northeast coast” (The Global Post).  For comparison, Sri Lanka, with half a million landmines from its decades of civil wars will require a decade or more to clear (Times of India).  Clearing Libya’s minefields could take generations.  Casualties from landmines in Libya have yet to be compiled, but the Global Post reported three civilian casualties near Ajdabiya and five deminer casualties near the Tunisian border; the Landmine Monitor recorded “over a period of six weeks in 2011, there were 13 reported casualties from ERW in Misrata alone.”  In 2009, the last year for which data was available, only a dozen landmine and ERW injuries were reported (The Monitor).

Despite the imminent and very real hazard from landmines, the United States is focused on MANPADS. Reporting on information from an anonymous State Department source, the Washington Post said “MANPADs pose a serious danger. While many of the aging rockets may not work, the Soviet-era man-portable air defense systems require no special training to operate and officials say prices have fallen on the regional black market, suggesting some of Gadhafi’s stores have been sold… [A] U.S. official said the terror threat was related to weapons such as MANPADs may have been obtained by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb” (Washington Post, emphasis added).

Aviation Week discounts the threat from MANPADS, saying “A top official from Russian KBM Machine-building design bureau confirmed it was his company that supplied the Libyan government forces with the truck mounted short-range anti-aircraft Igla-S (SA-24 Grinch) missiles recently spotted by the international media… He explained that the Libyan Strelets fire Igla-S missiles but they can not be used as man-portable air defense (manpads). ‘To fire Iglas as a man-portable weapon you need a separate trigger mechanisms that were not supplied to Libya’” (Aviation Week).  CJ Chivers of the New York Times continues: “there is no known evidence that the manufacturer’s claim is false, or that Libya possessed the so-called “grip stocks” that would allow a shooter to fire these missiles from the shoulder, which would make these weapons, once loose, a much more worrisome bit of post-conflict contraband” (CJ Chivers). 

Therefore, the possible proliferation of looted weapons from Gaddhafi’s stockpiles does not constitute an imminent threat to civilian or military aircraft.  The explosive material from the looted stockpiles can be converted into improvised explosive devices (IEDs), but the very real and current threat of landmines in Libya exceeds the potential threat from MANPADS.  The reason for the US State Department’s focus on MANPADS instead of landmines is simple: landmines in Libya are only a threat to Libyans and persons on the ground in Libya.  MANPADS pose a potential threat to people outside of Libya (or flying over Libya and Libya’s neighboring states at less than the cruising altitudes used by civilian aviation) and that potential threat is enough to create media attention and provide funding for MANPADS destruction in Libya.  My ask to the State Department is this: even if all of Libya’s MANPADS are found, secured and destroyed, continue to fund and support demining and destruction of landmines in Libya. 

Michael P. Moore, September 27, 2011.

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