Loose Missiles

The tendency of military or intelligence establishments to “fight the last war” has been a much-noted phenomenon for decades, made even more intense by political pressures of the sort being exerted by U.S. Republicans to revive the North Korean, Chinese, Iranian and Russian boogeymen of the past (you have to wonder if the Vietnamese are next!). But even on less strategic topics, the habit of not thinkig clearly about current security threats can be troubling.

In 2003, the Washington Monthly published an article by Soyoung Ho warning that with all the attention being paid to airport and airline security aimed at keeping terrorists from boarding planes or placing bombs in luggage, the odds were actually increasing that at attack could come from the ground by someone deploying a portable shoulder-launched missile. Indeed, improvements in missile technology and the closing-off of other options for attacks on aircraft made the threat more significant than security officials seemed willing to admit.

We remembered that article here at the Monthly as one of our former editors, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, published a piece yesterday noting that an alarming number of shoulder-launched missiles had gone missing after the civil war in Libya:

Whenever the CIA uncovers a new plot overseas, like al-Qaeda’s latest scheme to blow up civilian aircraft using advanced, hard-to-detect explosives, people breathe a sigh of relief. But this is a multifront war, and almost by definition, the attack that gets you is the one you didn’t see coming….

For the past few months, I’ve been hearing private warnings about another threat to commercial planes — namely, the spread of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from Libya after the overthrow of Moammar Gaddafi’s regime. A State Department official said in February that Gaddafi had acquired 20,000 of these weapons, and that only 5,000 of them had been secured through a $40 million U.S. program to buy up loose missiles…..

Here’s the scary part: Two former CIA counterterrorism officers told me last week that technicians recently refurbished 800 of these man-portable air-defense systems (known as MANPADS) — some for an African jihadist group called Boko Haram that is often seen as an ally of al-Qaeda — for possible use against commercial jets flying into Niger, Chad and perhaps Nigeria….

The White House commissioned an interagency task force last fall to hunt for the Libyan missiles. “This is going to be a long-term risk mitigation effort, to buy down the risk,” the senior official explained.

Securing loose nukes remain the overriding worry, a cause that lost one one of its original champions at the hands of Indiana Republican voters yesterday. But the loose missiles problem is reminder not only that it’s a bad idea to keep fighting old wars–but that sometimes the weaponry built up for old wars finds its way into new uses.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.