Cover: Acquisition and Use of MANPADS Against Commercial Aviation

Acquisition and Use of MANPADS Against Commercial Aviation

Risks, Proliferation, Mitigation, and Cost of an Attack

Published Dec 30, 2019

by Sean M. Zeigler, Alexander C. Hou, Jeffrey Martini, Daniel M. Norton, Brian Phillips, Michael Schwille, Aaron Strong, Nathan Vest


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Research Questions

  1. What are the trends in the use of MANPADS against civilian aviation?
  2. What is the current and evolving threat environment caused by the proliferation of MANPADS?
  3. How would a MANPADS attack against civilian aircraft affect an economy?
  4. What mitigation options are available to reduce the risk of an attack or to lower the likelihood it is successful?

Since 1975, upwards of 60 civilian aircraft have been hit by surface-to-air missile platforms known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), resulting in the deaths of over 1,000 civilians. Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and Lebanese Hezbollah are thought to possess MANPADS, presenting an ongoing concern for civilian air travel in the modern political climate. Although a MANPADS attack on a civilian aircraft has not been attempted since 2007, the threat of MANPADS attacks remains, and so does the need to develop a better understanding of the security risks posed by these systems. The loss of life from a MANPADS incident could be severe and have grave international repercussions. The research summarized in this report aims to provide analysis of the key issues of this international security challenge.

Key Findings

MANPADS targeting of civilian aircraft associated with intrastate conflict

  • Historically, MANPADS have been used to target airliners overwhelmingly in conflict settings, primarily those of higher intensity.
  • Russia and China not only possess the most MANPADS, they are the two states historically most willing to sell them to countries of questionable internal stability.
  • Attacks on civilian aircraft in general are associated with a 1.4-percent decrease in gross domestic product.
  • Multiple mitigation options can be used to reduce the risk of an attack. Employing a multi-layered approach involving several options should be pursued as part of a wider strategy to lower risk.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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