Missiles for Sale

A State Department special envoy discusses what the U.S. government is doing to ensure cold-war-era missiles don’t fall into the wrong hands.

Beyond bilateral agreements and international norms, the U.S. government has representatives engaged in high-level diplomacy with foreign governments. They're working on some of our most-pressing national-security problems, like attempting to secure anti-aircraft weapons before terrorist groups have a chance to acquire them. Ambassador Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr., the State Department's Special Envoy for MANPADS Threat Reduction, is one such diplomat. He met with a group of experts at The Nixon Center on Tuesday to explain his part-time job, helping countries limit and control Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS), or the shoulder-fired missiles such as the Stinger. Recently, terrorists have used these weapons in East Africa and Iraq.

The effectiveness of these systems, moderator Geoffrey Kemp, director of the Regional Strategic Programs at The Nixon Center, isn't in doubt. But it is precisely their proven effectiveness that makes them so dangerous, especially in the hands of terrorists. And it's not just militaries that are at risk. Since the 1970s, Bloomfield said, over forty civilian planes have come under fire, with about twenty-eight hits.

It only takes one plane, he commented, to disrupt a state's operations and economy: after two Soviet-era SA-7s were shot at a civilian aircraft in Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, the country's GDP dropped over 3 percent and tourism dropped by a whopping 25 percent. And the plane in question wasn't even shot down, just fired upon by terrorists with connections to al-Qaeda. With more countries in areas of questionable security attempting to find a niche in the global economy by opening themselves up to tourism, which requires air travel, this threat becomes even more real.

Relics of the cold war, these weapons are still stockpiled across the globe, and many have made their way onto the black market-thousands of systems, mainly foreign-made missiles,  Bloomfield estimated. Some audience members also expressed concern about U.S.-made missiles. During the 1980s, the United States provided the mujahideen in Afghanistan with Stingers to combat Soviet forces there. When the issue of these weapons potentially lurking on the black market was mentioned, Bloomfield assured the audience that when American missiles are discovered, US Government representatives mount intensive efforts to re-acquire them. Such measures are understandable, as there is evidence that terrorists are actively trying to buy these types of missiles. Of the approximately half million systems in existence when he first started working on these issues for the government in 2004 (though he entered his current position in January of this year), Bloomfield noted, 90 percent were secure and under the control of governments. The other 10 percent were under questionable control-in the possession of governments without the funds to install proper security measures or being sold illicitly, for example.

But these weapons are old, and their advanced age can lead to misfires or backfires, which can harm civilians. They are often stored under very dangerous circumstances, near chemical stocks, for example. And suppliers in areas like the Balkans and the Horn of Africa continue to sell the weapons illegally.

So the United States is working in partnership with these countries to help bring this threat under control. As Bloomfield put it, the United States is "taking battlefields from the cold war and making them safe." And today, Iraq poses the biggest challenge for the United States, Bloomfield said.

The ways in which the U.S. government can help are varied. Its major resource is its knowledge, and Bloomfield outlined a few of the ways the government uses that knowledge. Officials can look at the domestic situations to see if weapons are safe. Teams can take surveys of airports and take stock of the threat these kinds of missiles pose. They can analyze each case to see if governments have any real use for the weapons. And they can provide the information or financial assistance needed for destruction. At all times, he said, it is key to respect the fact that destroying or controlling these weapons is a "sovereign decision," though that doesn't mean outside forces can't help the process along.

An overarching theme Bloomfield discussed was the role of economics in the countries making these sovereign decisions. The states that participate in illegal weapons sales or have stockpiles are often the poorest. Suppliers in these countries need to have an alternative source of income before they can even think of getting out of the illicit arms trade. So, solutions often include an economic component.

Bloomfield commented that he (and the government) would "much rather empower states against nonstate actors" than try to deal directly with nonstate actors. There are, after all, laws in place like those banning funding of known terrorists. One approach, then, is to attempt to make these states part of the global economy, offering prospects for prosperity outside of illicit dealings. Providing a good example, he noted, are the former-Soviet bloc countries, where a poor economic situation and stocks of leftover cold-war weapons make for a dangerous cocktail.

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