The story so far: The US and NATO allies are rushing arms shipments to Ukraine at an increased pace since, and even before, Moscow’s military assault to help Ukrainian troops counter the significantly well-equipped Russian military’s attacks. On March 13, United States President Joe Biden approved a $200-million arms package for Ukraine, which would include US-made Stinger Missiles, which are a type of shoulder-fired Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems (MANPADS). In the first week of March itself, more than 17,000 anti-tank weapons and 2,000 Stinger missiles had been sent by the US and NATO. Analysts have said anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles have been effective in countering Russian military advances in the air and on the ground.
Talking about the risks involved in sending portable and sensitive weaponry like MANPADS into the volatile Ukraine crisis, a senior United States Defence official told Reuters: “Frankly, we believe that risk is worth taking right now because the Ukrainians are fighting so skillfully with the tools at their disposal and they’re using them so creatively.”
So far, various types of MANPADS have been sent to Ukraine by Germany, U.S., Denmark, Lithuania and the Netherlands. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, which has already sent anti-tank missiles, is also planning to soon ship Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.
What are MANPADS?
Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems are short-range, lightweight and portable surface-to-air missiles that can be fired by individuals or small groups to destroy aircraft or helicopters. They help shield troops from aerial attacks and are most effective in targeting low-flying aircrafts. MANPATs or Man-Portable Anti-Tank Systems work in a similar manner but are used to destroy or incapacitate military tanks.
MANPADS can be shoulder-fired, launched from atop a ground-vehicle, fired from a tripod or stand, and from a helicopter or boat. Weighing anywhere between 10 to 20 kilograms and not being longer than 1.8 metres, they are fairly lightweight as compared to other elaborate weapon systems, making them easy to operate by individual soldiers. Operating MANPADS requires substantially less training.
According to US-based policy think-tank, the RAND Corporation, MANPADS have a maximum range of 8 kilometres and can engage targets at altitudes of 4.5 km.
Most MANPADS have passive or ‘fire and forget’ guidance systems, meaning the operator is not required to guide the missile to its target, enabling them to run and relocate immediately after firing. The missile stays locked-on to the targeted object, not requiring active guidance from the soldier. The missiles are fitted with Infrared (IR) seekers that identify and target the airborne vehicle through heat radiation being emitted by the latter.
MANPADs with active guidance systems or command-guided MANPADS also exist but are less common. These require the operator to guide the missile till it hits the target, meaning they depend on a beam-riding-configuration, wherein the operator paints the target vehicle with a laser beam and and keeps the beam on it till the missile hits. MANPADs with such systems are more difficult to operate and may require a crew.
The passive-guidance MANPADs, which do not use a laser beam, are harder to detect by the target’s crew.
When were MANPADS used in the past?
The first MANPADS were introduced by the United States and Soviet Union in the 1960s. Russian and U.S. MANPADS were also used during the Vietnam war. The U.S. supplied MANPADSto the Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which the latter used against the Soviet forces. Countries such as India, Pakistan, Germany, U.K., Turkey and Israel have also used MANPADS in their defence efforts.
As of 2019, 20 countries had developed the wherewithal to manufacture MANPADS and together made 1 million such systems for defence and export purposes.
Over time, non-state actors such as rebel and terrorist groups have also illicitly acquired MANPADS, using them during civil wars and other high-intensity conflicts. MANPADs have been used in the Syrian war and in Libya. Non-state groups in African countries like Sudan, South Sudan, Angola, Somalia and Congo have also acquired and used MANPADs.
Russia is by far the biggest exporter of MANPADs, having sold over 10,000 such systems between 2010 and 2018 to various countries including Iraq, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and Libya.
Common variants of MANPADs
The most common make of MANPADs is the U.S.-made Stinger missiles. These weigh about 15 kg, have a range of 4,800 metres or 4.8 km, and can engage low-flying aircrafts at an altitude of 3,800 metres. They have a passive guidance system, which uses infrared technology. Stringers have been sent or are currently being sent to Ukraine by the US, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark. In January, the U. .State Department gave clearance to Baltic countries Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia to provide U.S.-made stringers to Ukraine.
Stinger’s Russian or Soviet-made counterparts are the Igla MANPADS, which also employ Infrared technology. They were used in Iraq when it was invaded by the U.S. in 2003. They have also been used by India, for instance, as part of the Operation Trishul Shakti of 1992, during the Siachen conflict.
Starstreak, the British army’s equivalent of the Stinger missiles, have also been used in the past and the U.K.’s Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace, said recently that the U.K. is formulating a plan to provide Ukraine with a shipment of Starstreaks. Starstreak MANPADs have an active guidance system which uses a laser beam and needs the operator till the missile hits, but they offer a longer range (7 km) as compared to Stingers and are high-velocity systems.
Sweden makes the RBS-70 MANPADS series, which also uses laser beam technology, while China’s version, FN-6, is akin to ther Stinger.
As for anti-tank missiles, NATO countries and U.S. have also sent Next Generation Light Antitank Weapon or NLAW missiles and Javelin missiles to Ukraine, to help target Russian attacks on land. These missiles are also shoulder-fired and equipped with the ‘fire and forget’ technology. While the NLAW uses a ‘predictive line of sight’ guidance method where it calculates the distance and speed of the target on its own, the Javelins use infrared technology which sense the heat emitted from the target.
How effective are MANPADs in the Ukraine crisis?
Ukraine still has some of Soviet era longer-range air-defence systems that can target Russian aircraft, which is why Russia is flying them at low altitudes, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to short-range systems like MANPADS.
Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, was quoted by the BBC as saying that there’s been visual confirmation of at least 20 Russian aircraft — both helicopters and jets — being downed in Ukraine since the current conflict started. Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence, meanwhile, has said that it has shot down 48 Russian planes and 80 helicopters.
Meanwhile, Deutsche Welle quoted Ukrainian analyst Mykola Bielieskov of the Kyiv-based National Institute for Strategic Studies-an institute advising the country’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on security issues, who said that anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems are “precisely” what Ukraine needs right now.
“These MANPADS are very useful because they make Russian air strikes less effective,” said Mr. Bielieskov. “If you deploy them in large numbers, you certainly won’t shoot down every Russian jet and helicopter. But Russia would have to pay a steep price for an attack.”
Besides, the US State Department said on March 10, that Ukraine needs surface-to-air missiles or MANPADS more than it needs fighter aircrafts, adding that Ukraine already has its squadron of aircrafts and sending MANPADs would be more effective in shielding from air strikes by the “formidable” Russian army.
What are the concerns around MANPADS?
Many observers have pointed out that sending MANPADS to Ukraine may have its share of not so positive effects, besides the U.S. mentioning the ‘risks’ involved in sending such weapons to Ukraine.
According to the Global Organised Crime Index, “Ukraine is believed to have one of the largest arms trafficking markets in Europe. While it has long been a key link in the global arms trade, its role has only intensified since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.”
After the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, weapons supplied by other countries to aid Ukraine ended up in the wrong hands in multiple cases. Reports indicate that weapons in the state arsenal were illicitly acquired and smuggled by criminal and non-state rebel groups. The Organised Crime Index states that “arms are reportedly trafficked domestically, but the illicit arms trade is also linked to criminal arms markets in Russia, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Turkey, as well as countries in the EU and the former Yugoslavia.”
The index pointed out that cities in Ukraine such as Odesa, Dnipro, Kharkiv, and Kyiv are significant logistical centres for criminal networks.
Meanwhile, the Small Arms Survey of 2017 pointed out that Ukraine has 1.2 million legal firearms and around 4 million illegal weapons, a lot of them fully-automatic military weapons.
Thus, observers fear that sending lightweight ground-based MANPADS to Ukraine may contribute to intensifying the network of illegal weapon trade.
In other conflict-hit states as well, there is widespread evidence of MANPADS ending up with non-state and terrorist groups; the most prominent cases being Syria, Libya and Afghanistan. According to a Pentagon-financed study by the RAND Corporation from 2019, 57 non-state armed groups were confirmed or suspected to be possessing MANPADS.
Another concern around MANPADS is civilian attacks, according to the 2019 study mentioned above, more than 60 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS since the 1970s, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 civilians.
- Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems (MANPADS) are short-range, lightweight and portable surface-to-air missiles that can be fired by individuals or small groups to destroy aircraft or helicopters. They help shield troops from aerial attacks and are most effective in targeting low-flying aircrafts.
- Over time, non-state actors such as rebel and terrorist groups are known to have illicitly acquired MANPADS, using them during civil wars and other high-intensity conflicts. Russia is by far the biggest exporter of MANPADs, having sold over 10,000 such systems between 2010 and 2018 to various countries including Iraq, Qatar, Kazakhstan, Venezuela, and Libya.
- Ukraine still has some of Soviet era longer-range air-defence systems that can target Russian aircraft, which is why Russia is flying them at low altitudes, which in turn makes them more vulnerable to short-range systems like MANPADS.
- Observers fear that sending lightweight ground-based MANPADS to Ukraine may contribute to intensifying the network of illegal weapon trade. Further, according to a 2019 study, more than 60 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS since the 1970s, claiming the lives of more than 1,000 civilians.