The Illicit Possession and Transfer of MANPADS: A Global Assessment
By: Matt Schroeder
Despite an unprecedented global campaign to curtail the illicit proliferation of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), armed groups continue to acquire and use these weapons at an alarming rate. The Small Arms Survey has identified reports of illicit MANPADS in 32 countries and territories on five continents since 2011. These reports include imagery of dozens of advanced (third and fourth generation) systems acquired by non-state actors ranging from pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine to ethnic armed groups in Myanmar. At least five of the nine models of advanced MANPADS identified by the Survey had not been observed in the possession of armed groups prior to 2011.
This blog post updates and refines Small Arms Survey’s previous assessments of the illicit acquisition of MANPADS, the most recent of which covered the time period 1998–2013 and was published in 2013. The update is based on data from the Survey’s Database of illicit possession and transfers of MANPADS (database on illicit MANPADS), which contains 406 unique reports of illicit possession and transfers of MANPADS from 2011 through mid-2021.
MANPADS are short-range, surface-to-air missiles that are usually fired from a launch tube that rests on the operator’s shoulder. They are lightweight, portable, and relatively easy to use. In this post, ‘advanced MANPADS’ refers to third and fourth generation systems, most of which are more capable than earlier generation systems and are therefore often considered a greater threat to military and civilian aircraft. The models and generation of MANPADS identified in this post are listed in Table 1.
Data sources and categorization
Entries in the Survey’s database on illicit MANPADS are divided into two categories:
· ‘substantiated cases’ are based on information from one or more credible sources that include at least one image (photo or video) of clearly identifiable MANPADS or components.
· ‘reported cases’ are those for which there is imagery of illicitly held or transferred MANPADS, but the source is either unidentified or is not included in the list of ‘credible’ sources.
With few exceptions, other reports of illicit MANPADS are excluded from the database. For the purposes of this post, ‘illicit MANPADS’ refers to MANPADS that are possessed by or transferred to non-governmental entities without explicit authorization by the government of the state where the entity is physically located.
The data reveals both a continuation of — and a departure from — earlier proliferation trends. The vast majority of all illicit MANPADS activity since 2011 has occurred in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This region accounted for 74 per cent of the 406 reports identified by the Survey. Europe was the second most affected region with 14 per cent of illicit MANPADS activity, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa and Central/South Asia with six and three per cent of reported cases, respectively. The Western Hemisphere and East Asia each accounted for around one per cent of the reports (see Map 1).
Distribution of third and fourth generation MANPADS, specifically, was even more concentrated in the MENA region and Europe (see Map 2). These two regions accounted for 96 per cent of all reports. Notably, the Survey identified only five reports of illicit advanced MANPADS in East Asia, Central/South Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa combined — a dramatic change from the 1980s and early 1990s when armed groups in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa acquired dozens, possibly hundreds, of third generation US and Soviet MANPADS.
Notable trends and changes
First generation SA-7 pattern MANPADS remain the most numerous and widely proliferated illicit MANPADS worldwide. The Soviet-designed systems were identified in 23 of the 32 countries in Map 1 and were the only model of illicit MANPADS identified in 12 countries. Most of the remaining reports also feature Soviet-designed systems, namely SA-14, SA-16, or SA-18 pattern MANPADS. Together with SA-7 pattern MANPADS, these systems account for 81 per cent of all reports identified by model and 85 per cent of the substantiated reports. The continued prevalence of illicit Soviet MANPADS, which the Survey also identified as widely proliferated in its 2013 study, is the result of decades of Cold War-era overproduction and prodigious Soviet arms exports — the effects of which will continue to be felt for years to come.
The most notable change in proliferation patterns since 2011 is the sharp rise in the number of cases of illicit possession of advanced Chinese-designed MANPADS. In 2001, Jane’s Group published a list of MANPADS reportedly in the inventories of non-state groups from 1996 to 2001. The list includes just one model of advanced Chinese MANPADS. Comparable data for the period 1998–2013 compiled by the Survey revealed an uptick in reports of illicit advanced Chinese systems, but their proliferation remained limited to a handful of armed groups in just four countries.
In contrast, the Survey has identified 49 ‘reported’ or ‘substantiated’ cases of advanced Chinese-designed MANPADS in the possession of (or in transit to) at least 17 different armed groups in seven countries since 2011. These cases range from complete FN-6 MANPADS acquired by armed groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Myanmar, and Syria to QW-18 pattern gripstocks attached to Strela-pattern launch tubes in Gaza. Many of the illicit QW series MANPADS identified since 2011 were acquired by — or intended for — armed groups supported by Iran.
While conclusively linking individual illicit MANPADS to Iran is difficult, evidence gathered by UN investigators and images posted on social media point to the Iranian government as the source of many of the QW pattern systems. For example, UN investigators identified Iran as the most likely source of QW-18 pattern MANPADS and other weapons found on the Jihan, a dhow interdicted off the coast of Yemen in 2013. The US government and analysts from Conflict Armament Research also concluded that Iran was the source of the shipment.
The MANPADS found on the Jihan provide clues regarding the provenance of QW-18 components displayed by Hamas in Gaza. Photos taken in 2018 and 2019 show members of Hamas holding QW-18 gripstocks attached to SA7-pattern launch tubes. The lot number and date of manufacture on the gripstocks are identical to those on at least one of the Iranian-supplied gripstocks found on the Jihan, and the serial numbers are only 9–10 units apart (i.e. 004, 005, and 014). This evidence, along with the small number of other potential sources of QW-18 pattern MANPADS, strongly suggests that the gripstocks either came directly from Iran or from a source linked to the Iranian government.
Also noteworthy is the acquisition of North Korean MANPADS by armed groups in the Middle East. Imagery from Gaza and Syria show multiple North Korean HT-16 pattern MANPADS in the possession of Hamas and various Syrian armed groups. The Syrian groups appear to have obtained their illicit HT-16 MANPADS from government stocks. It is unclear where Hamas obtained their HT-16s, which could have come directly from North Korea or indirectly via a third party with access to North Korean weaponry, such as Iran.
Other illicit MANPADS identified by the Survey include a small number of US, British, Pakistani, and Polish systems seized by authorities in Afghanistan, Libya, Mexico, and Ukraine. The US Stinger and British Blowpipe MANPADS spotted in Afghanistan appear to be legacies of the covert US program to arm anti-Soviet insurgents in the 1980s. Both models were exported to the insurgents, and the lot number on at least one of the Stinger launch tubes documented since 2011 is identical to the number marked on a tube seized by the Soviets in 1987. The Pakistani Anza II MANPADS were found in Libya after the collapse of the Qaddafi regime in 2011. Available evidence indicates that only a small number of the third-generation systems were imported by the Libyan government. The MANPADS recovered in Mexico was a single first-generation US FIM-43 Redeye launcher that may or may not have contained a missile.
Finally, Ukrainian authorities seized several components for third-generation Polish Grom MANPADS from pro-Russian militants in 2014–2015. The seizures are the first documented cases of illicit acquisition of Grom-series MANPADS. Conflict Armament Research traced the components to Georgia, which imported 100 Grom missiles and 16 gripstocks from Poland in 2007. It is unclear how the militants acquired the systems. Some journalists point to the Russia as the most likely source of the MANPADS, which may have been seized by Russian troops during the Russo–Georgian war of 2008. Definitively linking the MANPADS to Russia would require more information about their chain of custody since 2008, however. (Note: the research for this post was conducted prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The makes and models of MANPADS have changed significantly in the subsequent months.)
Implications and mitigation measures
The continued proliferation of MANPADS poses an acute threat to military and civilian aircraft. Attacks on civilian planes have decreased significantly in recent years but that could change quickly and without warning: in many parts of the world, violent actors have access to MANPADS, and these systems are easily smuggled across borders and transported to attack sites. The need to curtail the illicit proliferation of MANPADS will become more pressing as increasingly capable systems are fielded.
For these reasons, it is essential that the international community recommits to implementing the counter-MANPADS norms and guidelines established over the last twenty years. Of particular importance are the stockpile security practices, export controls, and prohibitions on transfers to non-state actors codified in the Wassenaar Arrangement’s Elements for Export Controls of MANPADS and comparable guidelines adopted by other regional organizations. The political will required to uphold these guidelines is a critical component of future counter-MANPADS efforts. Reversing recent proliferation trends and preventing future attacks on civilian aircraft requires a sustained approach that holds all states accountable for their policies and practices.
Table 1: Illicit possession and transfers of MANPADS, 2011–21
Matt Schroeder is a senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey where he studies the arms trade, arms export controls, and the illicit proliferation of small arms and light weapons.
This blog post was made possible through the generous support of the US State Department.
Blog posts are intended as a way for various Small Arms Survey collaborators and researchers to discuss small arms- and armed violence-related issues, and do not necessarily reflect the views of either the Small Arms Survey or its donors.
 Due to the two-year (2011–2013) overlap in coverage, the database on illicit MANPADS includes some cases documented in the Survey’s previous data sets.
 For the purposes of this study, ‘credible sources’ are government entities, UN panels of experts, reputable journalists, select armed groups, and private researchers physically located in the area where illicit possession was documented or illicit transfers took place.
 This blog post deviates from the Survey’s established use of regional designations. See respective endnotes for lists of which countries and territories fall into which regions for the purposes of this blog post.
 For the purposes of this study, the Near East comprises the following countries and territories: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
 For the purposes of this study, Europe comprise the following countries and territories: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Holy See, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Kosovo*, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russian Federation, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and United Kingdom. *The designation of Kosovo is without prejudice to positions on status and is in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1244 and the International Court of Justice Opinion on the Kosovo declaration of independence.
 For the purposes of this blog post, Sub-Saharan Africa comprises the following countries and territories: Angola, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Gabon, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, São Tomé and Príncipe, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
 For the purposes of this study, South and Central Asia comprise the following countries and territories: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
 For the purposes of this study, the Western Hemisphere comprise the following countries and territories: Antigua and Barbuda, Argentina, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
 For the purposes of this study, East Asia and the Pacific comprises the following countries and territories: Australia, Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, China, Fiji, Indonesia, Japan, Kiribati, Laos, Malaysia, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, New Zealand, North Korea, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Samoa, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam.