WASHINGTON — The United States will seek international help in tracking shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that have increasingly fallen into terrorist hands and now represent a significant threat to commercial aircraft, a Department of Homeland Security official said Thursday.
The push to enlist foreign governments in a global effort to better secure and account for a worldwide inventory of the missiles, estimated to be between 500,000 to 750,000, comes on the same day that the Government Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, issued a report saying that the Pentagon is doing a poor job tracking the U.S. version of the shoulder-launched missile, called the “Stinger,” which it sells to a variety of foreign governments. The GAO report says the Pentagon’s shoddy accounting and tracking system makes it difficult to keep the weapons out of the hands of terrorists.
The new security challenges in Iraq have added to the global stockpile of MANPADS available on the black and gray markets, the GAO said.
“According to intelligence sources, thousands of MANPADS may have been provided to Iraqi security forces or were stolen during hostilities in Iraq immediately following the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003,” notes the report.
The control and accountability of shoulder-launched missiles “should be a very aggressive subject of discussion with our international partners,” Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security, said Thursday while speaking at a Reuters Air and Defense Summit in Washington. “They have to be engaged in accounting for that and tracking the movement of those,” Hutchinson said.
Reason for such high concern: Some 30 countries make the light but lethal weapons and about 1 percent of the worldwide total, or 7,500, are beyond any kind of formal government control, the GAO report said.
“The proliferation of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) has been of growing concern to the United States and other governments,” said the GAO said.
Terrorists are attracted to the weapons as a way to bring down commercial airliners because the weapons are deadly, portable, easy to use, easy to hide and cost from less than $1,000 each to $100,000.
Last year, the State Department estimated that more than 40 aircraft had been struck over the years by MANPADS, causing at least 24 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide.
But it was the first attack outside a conflict area — an unsuccessful attempt on an Israeli charter jet taking off from Mombasa, Kenya in 2002 — that raised the government’s concern about the risk posed by the missiles.
U.S. studying MANPAD defense
Hutchinson said no decisions had been made on whether the government might ultimately require U.S. airlines to carry countermeasures that might be developed. Such defenses could involve installing antennas to detect any incoming missile — a prelude to triggering infrared decoys to foil the heat-seeking weapon.
Earlier this year DHS announced it was funding a program to study the feasibility of retrofitting the U.S. commercial airline fleet with missile countermeasures. But critics have said such a move would be prohibitively expensive.
“I think there’s an awareness you can’t overburden an industry with costs,” Hutchinson said. “So who pays for it would be an issue down the road.”
“There is no way [the airline industry] could afford that,” said Francis Tusa, editor of Defense Analysis, a London-based newsletter. Tusa estimates it could cost $10 billion for U.S. airlines to equip the 6,000 or so planes they have flying.
The technology development efforts under way were important even if future defenses were deployed only selectively, Hutchinson said. “It might be such that you cannot do it in a comprehensive fashion but it might be on higher-risk routes,” he said. “It might be in the areas of more vulnerable airports.” Much hinged on what the countermeasures turned out to be and their costs, he said. “Historically, the biggest threat from MANPADS and the use of them has been overseas, and I believe that that remains,” he said.
Pentagon keeps paper records on sales
Countries that buy Stinger missiles must allow the Defense Department to inspect them. But, the GAO report says the Pentagon’s Stinger records are “neither complete nor reliable. As a result, [the Department of Defense] cannot account for each Stinger sold abroad.”
The Pentagon has no master database that maintains sales and shipping records of Stinger missiles, the report said. In addition, most of the records that do exist are merely paper copies, a significant portion of which have been misfiled or destroyed.
The DoD “lacks reliable control records” because there is simply no requirement to keep such sales records, the GAO notes. “Without complete and accurate Stinger shipping records [military officials] have no reliable control records against which to compare Stinger inventories,” the report says.
But the Pentagon has heard this before. In September 1994, the GAO said that the Pentagon’s oversight and record-keeping of the weapons was poor. Investigators recommended changes then.
In the report released Thursday, the GAO said that the defense secretary should standardize requirements for keeping Stinger records, create an electronic database to consolidate records of the systems and establish standard procedures for inspecting them.
The Pentagon, in response to the report, said it has a “high level of confidence” that the missiles sold to other nations do not pose a terrorist threat because many different organizations review each proposed transfer. The Pentagon also said that official procedures for counting and inspecting the missiles would be in place at year’s end.
In 2003, the State Department reached agreements with other countries to better control the weapons, but such agreements are voluntary and nonbinding, the report said. In that same year the DoD ordered reinstated a 1982 policy requiring its inspectors to conduct annual inventory checks of 100 percent of the Stinger missiles sold overseas. That 1982 policy—the year the U.S. first started selling Stingers abroad—was reduced to only five percent in 1998. The Pentagon said at the time that the 100 percent requirement duplicated the 100 percent inspections conducted by the recipient countries, which were done twice a year.
The GAO recommended that the secretary of state work with other countries to figure out ways to monitor how well they are reducing the supply of the weapons and assess whether such efforts dry up the flow to illicit arms markets.
The State Department agreed with the report’s recommendations and said that it is working with other countries.
The department has also worked with foreign governments to destroy more than 8,155 excess shoulder-fired missiles and tighten security where they are stored. By March, commitments from nine countries — including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Liberia, Nicaragua and Serbia to destroy nearly 10,000 excess missiles, the report said.
MSNBC.com's Brock N. Meeks contributed to this report.