Six years ago, in the Kenyan port city of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean, an Israeli airliner carrying 261 passengers leapt off the runway for its return flight to Tel Aviv. As it cleared the tarmac, the passengers and crew heard a noise and saw white trails of smoke streaking towards the port-side wing.
The shoulder-fired missiles—later determined to be Soviet-era devices called SA-7s—narrowly missed the plane. But the incident was a pointed reminder to a security community still on edge from the 9/11 terrorist attacks months earlier.
Officials estimate that there are potentially thousands of these weapons for sale on the black market, and commercial aviation is virtually naked before the threat, which no amount of passenger screening or airport security can defeat. Between 1978 and 1999, more than 40 civilian aircraft were hit by missiles, causing about 25 crashes and over 600 deaths around the world.
The one spot of good news is that there are fewer of these weapons now than there were at the end of the Cold War. But security experts warn that the danger that they will be used by terrorist groups remains high. Uncontrolled "weapons remain problematic, and we're working hard to make sure that we take the threat seriously," says Lincoln Bloomfield, a State Department special envoy dealing with the threat from shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles. His office coordinates the efforts of several government agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the State Department, and the Pentagon.
The task is daunting. Estimates indicate that more than 500,000 shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles have been produced worldwide. Bloomfield says that about 90 percent of the weapons are safely controlled, but 10 percent sit in countries that lack the will or the resources to properly monitor them.
On the black market, older missiles can be purchased for only a few hundred dollars apiece. Newer, more effective models cost substantially more. "We quickly began to draw the connection between the arms trafficking networks that had been established, in some cases as an instrument of foreign policy, during the Cold War, [and] the dangers of terrorism in the post-Cold War world," says Bloomfield.
Not to be confused with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, ubiquitous among insurgent forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the antiaircraft missiles are about the size and weight of a full bag of golf clubs and are generally fired from the shoulder. They can target planes from three miles away.
The international community can point to some successes in the control of shoulder-fired missiles. Since the failed Kenya attack, the United States has partnered with some 25 countries to destroy more than 26,000 excess and obsolete shoulder-fired missiles. Another 95 countries have agreed to strict limitations on the control, production, and storage of the devices.
Many nations that once fell under the Soviet Union's sphere of influence host large and sometimes loosely controlled arsenals of Cold War-era weaponry. Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, and Ukraine, for instance, had massive stockpiles of weapons that their governments recently agreed to destroy in the largest arms-destruction project in history. There were some 6,000 missiles in Bosnia's government-held stockpiles between 2003 and 2004. Cambodia destroyed its entire stock of 233 weapons in 2004 after some of the weapons exploded during test-firing.
The American effort to control the weapons and keep them out of terrorist hands has focused on destroying known arsenals, particularly of obsolete weapons, and strict controls on the production of replacement parts. There are also efforts to protect existing stockpiles with U.S. assistance, currently underway in Albania, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Lebanon, Montenegro, Uganda, and other countries.
Another approach is to defeat the missiles in the air. The Rand Corp., a think tank that researched the issue in 2005, says that an initial investment of $11 billion would be needed to protect U.S. commercial aviation, in addition to an annual operating cost of $2.1 billion. A study from DHS on the feasibility of installing military-style countermeasures on commercial planes is due next year. Meanwhile, field testing for a variety of antimissile systems designed by Boeing, BAE Systems, and Northrop Grumman is underway.