Maduro’s Missiles Pose a Terrorist Threat to the US, Experts Say

KYIV, Ukraine—If
the regime of Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro falls, experts warn the country’s arsenal of
Russian-made, SA-24 surface-to-air missiles might end up in the hands of
terrorists or drug cartels, posing a threat to U.S. civil aviation.

Man-portable air
defense systems, or “MANPADS,” are a particularly chilling threat in the hands
of a terrorist organization, since, by design, the weapons are transportable by
a single person, making them much easier to smuggle than larger weapons systems.

For that reason, U.S. security officials have long warned of MANPADS proliferating from the battlefields of Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet, unlike those distant warzones, weapons from Venezuela could arrive in the U.S. by land.

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Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez, right, mans a Russian-made MANPAD surface-to-air missile launcher in Caracas, Venezuela, March 14, 2015. (Photo: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

“There are existing
narco networks and smuggling routes, both overland and maritime, to potentially
bring these MANPADS into the U.S. It’s a serious problem that we have no good
answer for right now,” said Chris Harmer, a retired U.S. Navy commander and
former congressional staffer.

In 1999, under the
watch of Venezuela’s former president, Hugo Chavez, the country began
purchasing a wide range of military hardware from Russia. According to a
Reuters report, those weapons purchases included an order for 5,000 Russian-made, Igla-S MANPADS—known as the SA-24 in
U.S. military circles.

Today, with
Maduro’s grip on power under pressure from the U.S.-backed opposition leader,
Juan Guaido, experts have sounded the alarm about the prospect of black market
profiteers pilfering the country’s military arsenals in the wake of a civil war
or countrywide collapse into anarchy.

“The widespread
proliferation of Venezuela’s MANPADS would be hugely worrisome, not only for
the U.S. but for the entire region,” said Matt Schroeder, senior researcher for
Small Arms Survey, a Swiss think tank.

MANPADS inventories are comparable in scale to those of Libya’s, but, unlike
the SA-7s in Libya, which were technologically primitive and 30 to 40 years
old, Venezuela’s Igla-S MANPADS are recent-generation and recently produced,”
Schroeder said. “The loss of government control over these systems would be a
huge blow to aviation security.”

the Maduro government has well-established ties to Hezbollah, as well as drug
cartels in Central and South America with well-honed smuggling routes into the
U.S., underscoring how the proliferation of Venezuela’s advanced surface-to-air
missiles would pose a unique threat to U.S. national security, experts say.

“Hezbollah has
established a sophisticated and far-reaching operation in Central and South
America,” Harmer said. “They provide significant money laundering support to
drug cartels in a mutually beneficial arrangement. I am certain Hezbollah is
extremely interested in obtaining MANPADS out of the Maduro stockpile.”

In a 2017 briefing
before Congress, then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo said
it was a “real threat” that weapons smuggled out of Venezuela could end up in
the hands of a terrorist organization or a drug cartel in Mexico.

“There are plenty
of weapons running around in Venezuela. And this risk is incredibly real and
serious and [a threat to] South America and Central America, in addition to
just in Venezuela,” Pompeo said at the 2017 Capitol Hill briefing.

High Priority’

As the situation
in Venezuela deteriorates, the U.S. has floated the possibility of a military
intervention to secure Guaido’s leadership.

“There are a
lot of reasons why U.S. military action in Venezuela would be very complicated
and dangerous. At the top of the list is the Maduro regime’s stockpile of
MANPADS,” Harmer said. “The SA-24 is a very capable system and any potential
U.S. military operation would have to take that into account.”

With a range and velocity superior to that of the vaunted U.S. Stinger missile, the SA-24 would pose a serious threat to U.S. military forces should they intervene in Venezuela. For that reason, taking out Venezuela’s SA-24 arsenal would likely be a priority for U.S. forces, experts say.

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Juan Guaido, Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president, greets supporters during a demonstration in Barcelona, Venezuela, March 23, 2019. (Photo: Carlos Landaeta/AFP/Getty Images)

“The U.S. would
need and should have a very good, aggressive weapons removal and abatement plan
for Venezuela if we are talking about assistance, military action, or a
post-conflict zone in addition to defeating any [MANPADS] if they were employed
against us,” said Thomas Moore, a former senior professional staff member for the Senate Committee on
Foreign Relations.

“We would make it
a high priority to secure, remove, or eliminate MANPADS,” Moore told The Daily
Signal in an email.

agreed that, in the event of an intervention in Venezuela, U.S. forces would
prioritize neutralizing the surface-to-air missile threat. He added, however,
that confiscating Venezuela’s SA-24 arsenal would be a bridge too far for U.S.

“There are no
good options for the U.S. to establish control or accountability over the
Maduro regime’s stockpile of MANPADS,” Harmer said. “It would require an
immense commitment of manpower just to establish partial control or
accountability; total control or accountability of the SA-24 stockpile is
simply impossible.”

The deployment of
Russian troops to Venezuela last week heightened tensions and underscored how
Venezuela’s crisis is now at the nexus of the competing geopolitical interests
of Washington and Moscow. This development comes as U.S. President Donald Trump
has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, citing a national security
emergency due to illegal border crossings.

For his part, Moore
doubted that Russia would be a helpful partner in keeping Venezuela’s SA-24
arsenal off the black market.

“I cannot really
say Russia’s first concern in Venezuela after Maduro would be taking back any
military assistance they have provided,” Moore said.

A Lethal Threat

have been a threat to civil aviation since the first attempted attack against
an airliner in 1973, according to an Organization for Security and Cooperation
in Europe report.

than 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS since the 1970s, the State
Department reported in a 2017 fact sheet.

In 2002, terrorists fired shoulder-launched
missiles at an Israeli Arkia Airlines passenger plane as it was taking off from
Mombasa, Kenya. The two missiles missed their target and the plane ultimately
landed safely in Tel Aviv.

The failed attack
prompted Israel to look into equipping its aircraft with defensive
technologies. One such technology is a laser, called the Elbit C-Music
anti-missile system, which can be fitted to a commercial jetliner and is
capable of disabling a surface-to-air missile’s guidance system.

El Al Airlines,
Israel’s flagship carrier, installed such a laser on one of its 737 jetliners
in June 2013. The effectiveness of defensive lasers like the Elbit C-Music is unproven,
however, and with a price tag of $1.2 million, such systems are impractical to
install on every commercial aircraft.

U.S. military
aircraft are typically equipped with a suite of missile detection and
countermeasure systems, and military pilots are trained to evade surface-to-air
missiles and small arms fire by performing complex takeoff and landing approach
patterns that make it more difficult to be targeted.

If landing at
night, pilots turn off external lights and land at blacked-out airfields using
night-vision goggles. Meanwhile, security teams and drones patrol the
airfield’s periphery on the lookout for any suspicious activity.  

countermeasures include flares, which divert heat-seeking missiles, and
chaff—clouds of metal ribbons, which, when dispersed behind an aircraft,
conceal its radar signature and provide an alternative target for a
radar-guided missile.

Those countermeasures are uniquely tailored for the specific threats present in the areas within which military aircraft operate. Prior to missions, intelligence staff brief military pilots on the local missile threat, recommending what precautionary measures should be taken.

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A woman holds a placard reading “We Want Water and Electricity” as she shouts slogans during a protest for the lack of water and electric service during a new power outage in Venezuela, at Fuerzas Armadas Avenue in Caracas, Venezuela, March 31, 2019. (Photo: Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Altogether, these
measures are impractical for civilian airliners, say several U.S. military
combat pilots and aviation experts familiar with surface-to-air missile threats
and defensive measures. Moreover, there is no one countermeasure that could be
installed across the board for all civilian airliners that would effectively
defend against all threats.

The more practical
solution, experts agree, is for commercial airliners to simply avoid
high-threat areas.

In July 2014, a
Russian Buk surface-to-air missile shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 while
flying over eastern Ukraine, killing all 298 souls on board. The incident
highlighted the threat to civilian airliners flying over conflict zones.

However, missiles
like the Buk are complicated, massive weapons, impractical for terrorists to
covertly acquire and effectively use.

on the other hand, are designed to strike targets flying at lower altitudes.
The shoulder-fired missiles are, consequently, a greater threat to aircraft on
takeoff or landing. Their smaller size also makes them much easier to smuggle.

The possibility
of encountering a surface-to-air missile similar to the one that brought down
MH17 has been virtually nonexistent for U.S. military warplanes flying missions
over Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat in those warzones is mostly from small
arms fire and MANPADS.

Thus, keeping
MANPADS out of the hands of terrorist groups was a top priority for U.S. forces
in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing a template for the kinds of operations that
may soon be needed in Venezuela.

“The U.S. got
plenty of experience defeating and mitigating the threat from Soviet and
Russian [surface-to-air missiles] and MANPADs in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Moore
said. “That included efforts by [the State Department’s] Weapons Removal and
Abatement Office, and the [Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction
Agency]. I cannot really be too specific about that, but it’s most certainly a
whole-of-government approach we take to these weapons.”

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