A friend asked me recently why the thousands of man-portable surface to air missile systems (MANPADS) which were loose in Libya haven’t been used to shoot down airliners or western military aircraft in North, East and West Africa, and the Middle East. There are presumably groups who would like to do so, so if the large stocks of Libyan MANPADS had left state control during the war, why haven’t they been used over the past two years?
My response is that we could similarly ask why the Libyan opposition didn’t shoot down any of Qaddafi’s aircraft with missiles before 19 March, or why the Qaddafi forces didn’t shoot down any of the many NATO helicopters which were extensively operating over Libya, or despite reports of arms trafficking to Mali, none of the French military aircraft have been shot down with missiles.
My answer to all of these is as follows.
The Libyan stockpiles were old. Apart from a few recently imported SA24s, the vast majority of the Libyan stockpiles were SA7s form the 1970s. Video and photographs suggested that they weren’t stored very carefully – just stacked up in dusty boxes in warehouses. So many may well have been inoperable – components just rusted away, batteries past their useful life. In addition, during the Libyan Civil War NATO aircraft bombed many of the warehouses where the MANPADS were stored. During the fighting there were also reported accidental explosions in warehouses. So some of the Libyan stockpiles will have been destroyed.
In addition, the missiles, launch tubes and grip stocks were stored separately. As mentioned in this report (pdf) it takes some expertise and equipment to combine them ( a technician and a workshop). That means that none of the MANPADS in Libya were in a state that would be usable without some work. Such a job wouldn’t be a problem for a government, but a non-state group (especially in Mali) might well have difficulty finding the expertise.
There is also the need for training. MANPADS do require some training to use effectively, and that may mean that non-state groups don’t know how to fire them. (Or don’t fire any they have for fear of wasting the resource). There are apparently training manuals available online, but they may not be accurate or provide enough information to enable a novice to fire effectively.
Finally, any group which did shoot down a civilian airliner or a western military aircraft, or traffic the missile used in such an attack, would most likely find its self on the receiving end of a lot of attention from the US and other states. So it may be that they would rather not risk retaliation. One can see the same argument in why criminal organizations in western states almost never use light weapons (RPGs etc). They could probably get hold of them, but use would result in the deployment of a lot of law enforcement resources (whereas use of pistols etc much less so, especially in the USA).
There seems to be a threshold by which use of MANPADS is limited to active war zones (with a few exceptions). There certainly have been many used in Syria, and if reports are to be believed, some of those were supplied from Libya. The Syrian opposition groups have demonstrated technical proficiency (for example jury rigging an external battery), and in the context of that war they aren’t going to face retaliation from the US etc for using MANPADS. So they appear to have amassed enough internal capability and external support to be able to use them.
So I’d be worried about anyone taking off from Damascus, but even overflight over Syria should be fairly safe given the limited range of MANPADS (and I assume that the airliners are routed to avoid flying over Syria anyway). The same would apply to Mogadishu and Somalia. But attacks outside of active conflict zones are much less likely. The groups lack the expertise, and probably don’t want the attention that such an attack would engender.