Man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) & anti-tank weapons

What are MANPADS?

The term MANPAD Man Portable Air Defence System refers to a class of weapon that was intended originally to defend ground units against attack from the air. A MANPADS consists of four parts. A missile includes a rocket motor steered by an electronic guidance system towards the target. Close to the target, a warhead at the tip of the missile explodes and brings down the plane. The entire missile is stored in a canister to which is attached a firing and aiming mechanism. An entire MANPADS is designed to be carried and fired by one man, weighing no more than 20 kg, with a length of about 180cm, and a diameter of less than 20cm.

A MANPADS is directed to its target either autonomously (also called fire-and-forget) or semi-autonomously (also called Command-Line-of-Sight or CLOS). In autonomous missiles, the aiming mechanism attached to the canister identifies the target either by radar or by the target’s infra-red or other emissions. The missile, once launched, chases after the target, even if the target moves or tries to evade the missile and explodes in the target’s proximity. In CLOS launching, the operator might follow the target with the launcher’s sights, sometimes ‘painting’ the target with a laser beam, which the missile follows, allowing for corrections or aborting the shot.

Countermeasures include firing flares, which, since they are powerful infra-red emitters, can confuse the guidance system and radar or laser jammers that can blind the guidance system.

Who makes MANPADS?

Only a few countries today manufacture and sell MANPADS. The most commonly found, which have been manufactured in the tens of thousands, are made by Russia (SA-7/14 known as Strella or SA-18 known as Igla) and the United States (Redeye and Stinger). Other countries—People’s Republic of China, Sweden, France, Israel, United Kingdom—manufacture them as well.

MANPADS, notably from Russia, China, and the United States, have been supplied to many countries. For example, the deposed Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, had several tens of thousands in his arsenal.

How are they used?

MANPADS are extremely effective against slow-moving aircraft—helicopters and passenger or cargo planes—but there is not much evidence of their danger to fighter planes. They are thus well suited as terror weapons, but much less useful as weapons of war. The first recorded successful use of MANPADS was the downing of a Rhodesian passenger plane in 1978. Since then, there have been several attempts, some of them successful, to shoot down passenger planes with MANPADS. There are no recorded reliable instances of MANPADS shooting down fighter planes, though some planes (in Afghanistan and in the Andes) have been reported as being damaged or shot down.

What risks do they pose?

Because MANPADS are relatively small weapons with potentially enormous effects (a civilian airliner can carry up to 400 hundred passengers; a military aircraft can cost 10 to 150 million euro), MANPADS are weapons of choice in asymmetric warfare and terrorist acts. MANPADS threats to civilian aircraft are extreme and are taken very seriously by pilots, airlines and civil aviation authorities.

The potential threat to civilian airliners is so great, that several nations are considering, or are in the process of installing, countermeasures against this threat on civilian airlines. These countermeasures include laser beams to blind the missile’s guidance system, as well as flares to misguide them.

What can be done about MANPADS

Crucially, the single best way to deal with the MANPADS threat is to work through legislation and diplomatic channels. MANPADS technology is complex, and regulating the trade in components, as well as in the missile systems themselves offers a chance to reduce the threat worldwide. The German government, along with other governments such as the US, attempts to ensure the recovery and destruction of MANPADS in post-conflict states. Some states, such as Kazakhstan and Libya, have agreed to destroy MANPADS to reduce the stockpile and restrict the danger of stolen or lost MANPADS reaching terrorist hands.

Sources and further information:

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