Modern Diplomacy
Deliveries of Portable Anti-Aircraft Missile Systems to Ukraine

Man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) are among the many types of weapons being supplied in large by Western countries to the Ukrainian armed forces in the current conflict.

The most famous, both abroad and in Russia, were FIM-92 Stingers, which were supplied to the Afghan Mujahideen who fought against the local government and the Soviet troops supporting it. The CIA  delivered them as part of a wider effort, Operation Cyclone, and the exact number of missiles delivered remains unknown: we can confidently talk about more than 2,000 missiles. 

In the most biased Western expert opinions,  the US efforts are credited with a decisive contribution to the victory of the Mujahideen. However, this statement does not stand up to criticism, if only because the combat use of the Stingers in the Afghan war began in the second half of 1986, when the Afghan government, on Moscow's insistence, had begun large-scale negotiations with the radical opposition, and the Soviet leadership itself gradually curtailed all its efforts in Afghanistan. While supplies played a certain role, of course, in raising the morale of the militants and complicating the actions of Soviet aviation, the outcome of the war and even its time frame would probably have been the same without them.

After the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, the Americans had to spend years searching for and retrieving unused MANPADS that had begun to circulate around the world, the number of which, according to some estimates, exceeded six hundred, and far from all were found and taken back (or redeemed, taken away or destroyed). Former Afghan Stingers were used in the 1990s, at the very least, in the civil wars in Tajikistan and Sri Lanka, as well as probably by illegal gangs in Chechnya. It should be noted that at present, there is no clear certainty about the origin and number Stingers which were being used by groups of bandits in both Chechen wars; we can only say with certainty that it was extremely small. They also found their way, in small numbers, to various groups in the Middle East, from the Kurds to Hezbollah. Fortunately for the Americans themselves, by the beginning of their own Afghan war, the MANPADS they had supplied in the late 1980s had passed all of their expiration dates (primarily for batteries). 

In addition to their electric batteries, MANPADS featured an infrared homing head, which also require special small cylinders of liquid nitrogen, which immediately before launch cool the missile seeker. Like rockets and electric batteries, they naturally have an expiration date. 
During the twenty-year US war in Afghanistan, only one unaccounted-for MANPAD is thought to have been used to shoot down an American helicopter with a significant degree of probability (on 30 May 2007, a CH-47 Chinook transport helicopter was shot down).

A degree of uncertainty regarding the origin of Stingers is introduced by the fact that they weren’t just supplied to the Afghan Mujahideen during that time period. During the same period, the intransigent anti-communist Reagan Administration approved the supply of more than three hundred MANPADS to the Angolan organisation UNITA, which openly used terrorist methods in its guerrilla war. UNITA subsequently shot down at least several civilian aircraft (mostly L-100 Hercules transport planes). At the time of the start of deliveries, the organisation had a dubious reputation, since it claimed to have brought down a Boeing 737 with 130 passengers in 1983, which wasn’t enough for the Americans to stop supplies. In addition, a small number of MANPADS were received by the armed forces of Chad, after another Libyan intervention (in this case, the matter was, to put it mildly, the heavy attitude of the United States towards  Gaddafi). In these cases, as in Afghanistan, American special services made efforts to return or eliminate stockpiles of MANPADS, but such measures were never completely successful.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States, and even other Western countries, seemed to be more cautious in the supplying of MANPADS to conflict zones. In particular, numerous requests from the Syrian "armed opposition" of all sorts were denied. The United States, which soon launched an air operation against ISIS  (banned in Russia), had no illusions that a significant proportion of the weapons would quickly fall into the wrong hands and create future headaches. Moreover, the world's special services were especially attentive to the MANPADS arsenals that turned out to be ownerless, since "MANPADS-terrorism" became a common headache and fear. Fortunately, with the exception of a few successful attempts,   this could be avoided, largely due to the lack of large free and restless stocks in so-called "free circulation".

However, this situation is in danger of changing with the start of the current conflict. It is the most active, and has introduced never-seen-before volumes (in terms of frequency) of Western deliveries of MANPADS to Ukraine since the start of the current military conflict. According to reports, the first 200 Stingers were delivered from the USA by February 28. [ however, it is not clear whether the shipment, for example, to Poland or to the point of reception on Ukrainian territory, was taken into account, and not the transfer to the Armed Forces of Ukraine ] These deliveries, in addition to volumes, also differ in the extreme breadth of the number of participating countries and the range of weapons. At the moment, we can confidently mention in addition to the FIM-92 Stinger, we are seeing:

  • "Starstreak", a new English MANPADS with a specific laser (and not the usual infrared) guidance system - about 100 missiles.
  • "Martlet", the latest English missile system positioned as universal; its deliveries in the form of MANPADS may mean tests in combat conditions since they can only be physically carried out in very small volumes
  •  MBDA "Mistral" - French-made MANPADS, an unknown quantity were delivered from France, along with about 100 missiles from Norway.
  • "Strela-2 / 2M" - an outdated, but still combat-ready (of course, if there are "live" batteries for electricity and the refrigerant) Soviet system. Germany alone reported plans to transfer up to 2,700 of these from the stocks of the former GDR; in addition, deliveries from the Czech Republic were reported (160 units)
  • "Igla-1" - another Soviet MANPADS; Slovakia announced plans to transfer up to 500 missiles. Another version of the Igla has been supplied to Ukraine: the Polish-made "Piorun" - a local, highly modernised, once-licensed version
As you can see, even "exotic" weapons have been delivered to Ukraine; more in a few months than the Afghan Mujahideen received in years. However, a significant number of these, especially older systems from stockpiles, are not trackable at all, although they may be partially unusable.

These constitute only a fraction of the deliveries, since the lion’s share (unless, of course, we cross out the huge number of Strela from Germany) are, of course, Stingers. In addition to the United States, these MANPADS, or missiles and components for them, are supplied by such countries as Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and the Baltic countries. By the end of April, the United States alone, as reported, had already delivered 1,500 missiles (to which it is worth adding more than a thousand missiles from the allies transferred or planned deliveries), and more are probably on the way.

The planned scale of deliveries is such that the United States has actually transferred (or planned to transfer), according to various estimates, a quarter or even a third of its stocks of MANPADS and will likely be forced to reduce these deliveries due to a long-term threat to its combat capability. The fact is that the production of the Stinger in recent years has been carried out exclusively for export and in very small volumes. The manufacturing company Raytheon reports that a large release to refill stocks can only begin around years 2023-24  (moreover, it will take time to change the design, since some parts are simply no longer produced by contractors). Against the backdrop of the current situation, the US Army even found attention and money to restart the programme to create  new MANPADS again,  which has been delayed more than once due to low priority and stock availability. This situation is true even for mass-produced Javelin anti-tank systems - their consumption is such that, according to various estimates, it will take 3-5 years to replenish stockpiles to their pre-conflict levels.

However, the concern in the current situation is, of course, not caused by the difficulties of the American military-industrial complex (which will certainly be able to survive thanks to generous orders), but by the unprecedented volume and randomness of the supply of MANPADS to the conflict zone. Even with the most responsible approach to the issue (which is not clearly a priority for current operators simply because of active hostilities), dozens or even hundreds of missiles in a combat situation will be lost "in the army way": completely without a trace. The complete heterogeneity and the apparent lack of accounting for a number of items clearly do not simplify the problem. After the end of the conflict, an international effort will be required to search and record, border control and trace weapons traffic in this area, not even touching on the even more spontaneous proliferation of more “simple” weapons. We can confidently say that the "Ukrainian missiles" will surface in more than one conflict in the globe in the future, and the threat of MANPADS terrorism is greater than ever.


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