US says 'thousands' of missiles missing
WASHINGTON - It has been known for years that thousands of light and lethal shoulder-fired missiles are in black-market circulation. What is not known is exactly who has them and whether many have fallen into the hands of terrorists or criminals.
A worrisome puzzle, it explains why the United States and Russia signed an
agreement Thursday to cooperate in destroying surplus Soviet-era SA-7s and other
portable anti-aircraft missiles. The smallest of these are durable, relatively
cheap and easy to smuggle.
The State Department estimates that about 1 million shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been produced worldwide since the 1950s. The number believed to be in the hands of "nonstate actors," such as terrorist groups, is "in the thousands," the department says.
"What's driving this is concern about the threat to commercial aviation," said Wade Boese, research director at the private Arms Control Association. A single successful missile attack on a passenger plane could paralyze the airline industry, at enormous economic loss, he said.
There has been only one known attempt against a commercial airliner outside of a war zone. In November 2002, two surface-to-air missiles barely missed an Israeli charter airliner taking off from the airport in Mombasa, Kenya, with tourists returning to Israel. Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network claimed responsibility for the attempt.
The U.S.-Russian agreement signed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov calls for sharing information about exports of these missiles to third countries.
Of note, Boese said, is the absence of a commitment by either Washington or Moscow to halt the exports.
The United States began selling its Stinger shoulder-fired missile to foreign countries in 1982. The CIA secretly transferred an estimated 2,000 to Afghanistan mujahedeen rebels in the mid-1980s, and they were used to down hundreds of Soviet helicopters and transport aircraft.
When the war against the Soviets ended in 1989, the CIA began offering to buy back the Stingers for as much as $150,000 apiece. In his book "Ghost Wars," author Steve Coll wrote that as recently as 1996 the CIA estimated there were about 600 Stingers still unaccounted for in Afghanistan.
There also are an unknown number of SA-7 and other types of shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of insurgents in Iraq.
A study published last year by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, said the U.S. government's records on exports of shoulder-fired missiles are "neither complete nor reliable."
The GAO said the Army and the office within the Pentagon that manages arms transfers have conflicted figures on missile exports. One says 7,551 Stingers have been sold abroad since 1982 and the other puts the figure at 8,331. One says Egypt bought 89; the other says Egypt bought none.
The biggest buyer over the period was Taiwan, with more than 2,200, followed by Denmark with 1,140; Japan with between 871 and 1,025, and Italy with as many as 885.