MANPADS Myths in Libya

C.J. Chivers’s excellent post for the New York Times’s “At War” blog dispels the widely-reported contention that the Libyan weapons stockpiles looted amidst last year’s fighting included shoulder-launched SA-24 air-defense missile systems. The post explains that while Libya did acquire SA-24s, they were not the shoulder-launched or MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems) variety. Because vehicle-launched SA-24s like Libya’s are harder than MANPADS to surreptitiously transport and operate, they are a smaller proliferation risk, especially where terrorists are concerned.

Libya did have SA-7 MANPADS, some of which appear to have been looted from weapons stockpiles. These are less reliable than SA-24s due to age, and far less capable even when young. Last spring, U.S. officials began to say that Libya had acquired 20,000 SA-7 missiles. I complained about that estimate here. No U.S. official has ever said where that figure comes from, and it vastly exceeds prior published estimates.

As Chivers explains on his own blog, if Libya had 20,000 missiles, it likely acquired far fewer reusable components and had far fewer complete systems. It’s like how you buy fewer cannons than cannon balls. But as the 20,000 claim has been widely repeated, reporters have often replaced the “missiles” part with “MANPADS,” which means the whole system. A quick Google search gives countless examples. Even Andrew Shapiro, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, said 20,000 lost Libya MANPADS in prepared remarks in February.

What all this amounts to is underreported good news. At least, the news is far better than even careful newspaper readers have realized. Rather than 20,000 MANPADS, including some high-end types, floating around Libya and who knows where else, the number is almost certainly far lower and consists of less capable or even unusable components.

That good news makes the already dubious case for paying to protect commercial aircraft against MANPADS even worse. Someone tell Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA).

Few security reporters have C.J. Chivers’s experience with weapons and military organizations. But there is nothing preventing them from having stronger BS detectors and approaching scary official claims with more skepticism.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.