The United States government in cooperation with 29 countries have destroyed over 30,000 shoulder-to-air missile launchers, otherwise known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) since 2003, reports the U.S. State Department.
"The threat posed by MANPADS to civil aviation is real," the State Department said in a press release. "Forty civilian aircraft have been hit by these missiles since the 1970s. A total of 859 deaths resulted from these attacks."
Terrorists and belligerents in war zones have been known to use MANPADS to destroy civilian aircraft during a flight's take-off and landing. Planes above 20,000 feet in altitude are generally considered safe from the MANPADS threat.
A Congressional Research Service PowerPoint presentation created in or after 2004, however, shows that estimates of non-state actor inventories of MANPADS range wildly, from 5,000 to 150,000. Twenty-five to 30 terrorist groups—such as the Irish Republican Army, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Hezbollah—are believed to have access to MANPADS. Global military inventories are thought to stand between 350,000 and 500,000 missile launchers.
Terrorists find MANPADS extremely attractive, according to the Federation of American Scientists, because they are inexpensive, highly portable, concealable, and highly lethal.
A recent incident highlighted in the CRS PowerPoint presentation involved a DHL aircraft that was hit by a shoulder-to-air missile in November 2003. The missile took out the plane's left engine, but "landed safety due to superb flying."
♦ Photo of MANPADS by US Army Korea-IMCOM/Flickr