WASHINGTON — The fierce combat in Libya has unleashed a once-hidden arsenal of portable anti-aircraft missiles that the government fears could easily be siphoned off to terror groups, giving rise to a potential threat to commercial aviation that the U.S. is only beginning to confront, government officials and arms experts said.
The fears are compounded by suspicions that Libyan government and opposition forces are both deploying fighters with ties to terrorists and mercenaries. With more than 20,000 missile launchers estimated in Libya, there have been unconfirmed reports that some anti-aircraft weapons have already been funneled to North African militants, but amid the vast caches wielded by both sides, there is no solid evidence yet that terrorists have them.
Troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and opposition fighters have made frequent use of Russian-built anti-aircraft weapons in the two-month-long civil war, including aging 30-year-old shoulder-fired models to advanced truck-mounted missile launchers, according to battlefront accounts and an array of combat photographs and video.
The availability of man-portable air defense systems, also known as MANPADS, across the world's conflict zones has long worried counterterrorism officials. Passenger flights have never been targeted by such missiles inside the U.S., but there have been nearly a dozen lethal strikes over the past decade in Africa and Asia.
Surveillance by aerial drones and diplomatic pressure on Libya's African neighbors to police its porous borders may be the best, if limited, actions the U.S. can take for now. U.S. military planes can fly above the range of the missiles and use electronic jamming to elude them, but detection and evasion gear are considered too bulky and expensive to install in the world's civilian aircraft fleets.
Congressional officials are pressing U.S. diplomatic and military officials for details on how they might counter the anti-aircraft missile threat in Libya, but said they have heard few specifics. Late last month, Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., chairman of a House subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, urged Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to step up efforts to monitor and secure antiaircraft weapons — even as rebel units were reportedly receiving new shipments of armaments from abroad.
"The department should be in contact with neighboring countries to exercise vigilance in locating and securing any missiles that may be transiting out of Libya," Royce wrote in a letter to Clinton. He urged State Department officials to press rebels to keep tight control over any such missile stockpiles. The U.S., he added, should mount "an aggressive missile destruction and recovery program" once a new Libyan government is installed.
A State Department spokesperson, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the department's efforts, said an internal task force has turned urgent attention to the threat. The spokesperson also said officials were in contact with the Libyan opposition and international organizations inside the country.
Even those first steps are unlikely to be effective in quickly securing the anti-aircraft missiles and launchers in use in Libya, experts said.
"The problem is that you have amorphous groups on both sides and all sorts of weaponry are coming into play from unregulated caches," said a former assistant secretary of state, Lincoln P. Bloomfield Jr., who headed a Bush administration effort to recover and dispose of anti-aircraft weapons. "The primary objective is to make sure these missiles don't cross Libyan borders. In theory, that's the goal, but it's not clear it can be done in the middle of a hot war."
The U.S. general who led the early American airstrikes enforcing the Libyan no-fly zone estimated earlier this month that Gadhafi's military amassed as many as 20,000 portable missile launchers before the conflict started. That would outstrip similar caches of terror groups and militants in Afghanistan and Iraq in recent years.
"Many of those we know are now not accounted for, and that's going to be a concern for some period of time," Gen. Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee last month.
Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno said last month that a cache of surface-to-air missiles and launchers taken from liberated Libyan stocks already reached al Qaeda's North African contingent, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Similar accounts have come from Algerian officials but the reports have yet to be confirmed, the U.S. officials said.
The fluid contours of the conflict, with war-torn cities changing hands repeatedly, make it nearly impossible to closely monitor stockpiles. Shoulder-fired launchers can easily be concealed, even from airborne U.S. Predator drones and spy planes, and truck-mounted units can be disassembled or masked by canopies. Poorly armed rebels will not likely give up their limited MANPADS supplies, and Gadhafi's forces would presumably be hostile to any effort to turn over arms while the U.S. and allied forces enforce the no-fly zone.
Bloomfield, who was special envoy for MANPADS threat reduction in the final year of the Bush administration, worked with the State and Defense departments to track and dispose of weapons of mass destruction and conventional arms. Since 2003, the U.S. has led international efforts to recover 32,000 MANPADS from Afghanistan to the Ukraine — a figure dwarfed by congressional estimates that there are 500,000 to 750,000 worldwide.
The cost of outfitting large passenger planes with defensive devices was deemed too expensive — as much as $3 million per jet. Since 1975, missiles fired at civilian planes in nearly a dozen incidents have killed more than 200 people from Africa to Central Asia. A shoulder-fired missile was blamed for deaths of 11 crew members aboard an Ilyushin cargo plane downed in Somalia in March 2007. Two U.N. transports were struck by missiles over Angola in 1998 and 1999, leaving 23 dead. Two missiles fired by terrorists barely missed a chartered Israeli commercial jet taking off in November 2002 with 271 passengers and crew near Mombasa, Kenya.
U.S. anti-missile efforts involve negotiations with legitimate governments, said J. Christian Kessler, former director of the State Department's Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction, which works with the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement to counter the anti-aircraft threat. "That process simply can't function if you're dealing with a hostile government and an unorganized opposition at war."
The U.S. has worked to reduce stockpiles of such missiles in 20 other countries with smaller arsenals than Libya, and when the U.S. began renewing ties with Gadhafi's government, it pressured the regime to disassemble its nuclear weapons program and chemical arms stockpile. But there was no similar anti-missile effort in Libya that might have limited the current battlefield proliferation.
"We really didn't have our finger on MANPADS as an agenda item," said Bloomfield, now chairman of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan global security group in Washington. The issue never re-emerged, he said, because of growing U.S. strains with Gadhafi over the precise reciprocal steps to resolve Libya's culpability in the 1988 bombing of a Pan AM flight over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
The missiles sighted in Libyan battle zones are mostly Russian, typically shoulder-fired SA-7 Strela missiles and launchers that date to the 1970s, said Matthew Schroeder, an arms expert with the Federation of American Scientists who has examined images of nearly four dozen separate anti-aircraft weapons in use on the Libyan front.
Some SA-7s are likely too old to function.
The head of Russia's Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade reported last month that Gadhafi's forces had also amassed between 600 and 1,500 1980s-vintage Russian MANPADS. And recent Associated Press photos and other images from the Libyan front show both sides wielding advanced Strelets vehicle-mounted launchers capable of firing new SA-24 Grinch missiles. KBM, a Russian arms exporting company, confirmed a recent sale of an unspecified number to Gadhafi's military, according to Aviation News, a trade publication.
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The SA-24 has a longer range — accurate to 11,000 feet — than the 1980s Russian models, Schroeder said. Its bulkier vehicle mount would make it harder to hide, said Pieter Wiezeman, a senior arms expert with the Stockholm International Peace Institute, a nongovernment group in Stockholm.
But a carefully-concealed truck-mounted weapon would still be mobile and compact enough to be taken anywhere in Africa, he said, adding: "If someone gets near a runway with some of those missiles in a 4-by-4 truck, how are you going to stop them?"