A Strategic Inflection Point: Libyan Manpads in Play


6/27/12: by Robbin Laird

At Second Line of Defense, we have created a new product, which we call Strategic Inflection Points (SIP).  Our first issue has focused on China and on Iran as two centers of interests, both generating SIPs in the near term.

Dr. Harald Malmgren highlighted one aspect of the SIP report in a recent AOL Defense piece.


For Second Line of Defense, disruptive events often mark historical inflection points – when high impact shifts the trajectory of political, security, or economic forces.

The Strategic Inflection Points Report looks at such “game changers,” forcing us to consider whether they have set in motion a paradigm shift. In this framework of thinking, we will focus on events and their potential strategic consequences.


Such an event would be the use of the loose manpads from Libya against civilian or military targets in the global arena.

The Libyan crisis has passed out of the global press’s view but remains unfinished.

The Islamic Republic of Libya remains unformed and undefined in the Maghreb and in the Middle East.  As a major oil provider and located strategically in the Western Mediterranean, Libya remains central to European security and to global economic dynamics.

A consequence of the way the Libyan operations were conducted was the unleashing of thousands of Manpads into the global marketplace.  Amazingly, as the story surfaced it quickly disappeared.  Unfortunately, the threat has not.

In the United States, the Obama Administration and its Department of Homeland Security have placed the counter-Manpads issue on a very back burner.  Most of the activities of the last Administration to deal with manpads as a long-term issue have been set aside.

It is curious indeed how the American press barely reported the problem and interviewed no one within the Administration about approaches to dealing with the threat and thinking about how to contain the challenge.

But in the Strategic Inflection Points Report, we have no such intellectual blinders.  Indeed, a raison d’etre for the report is to contemplate events, which the world’s press will only address after the fact.

Unfortunately, the press and many analysts follow a very narrow understanding of reality, namely what happened this week, last month or might happen next month.  The press of today is of more significance than what can happen tomorrow.

Such is the case with the manpads threat.

In the upheaval of the Arab Spring, intelligence and military relations have been significantly disrupted.  Militaries and intelligence organizations, which have built close relations among them in the Arab world and with Israel, Europe and the United States, are in significant disarray.

With thousands of manpads loose after the initial Libyan events, why has not the threat increased? Credit Photo: http://www.anddomestic.com/manpads.htm

Not only will the press of events to deal with the proactive Iranian policies in the region unleashed by near attainment of nuclear capabilities be a problem, the explosion of a civil airliner as a result of a manpads attack will be like throwing a match into the region.

One or simultaneous manpad attacks against civil airliners are possible.  The proliferation from Libya to Egypt and Lebanon has already been reported.  If a group associated with the former Libyan regime, based in Lebanon or Egypt sought to bring further focus on the crisis in Libya, attacking European airliners coming into Egypt would be plausible.

Already, several Libyan groups have brought lawsuits to Europe; it might be more effective to bring focus European attention on the role of Europe in the Libyan operation.

European airliners would provide attractive targets because the inability of Europe to respond would be assumed with Europe in throes of elections and the Euro crisis.  How would domestic opinion in Europe in an election year view the wisdom of Libyan operations in the presence of the demonstrated impact of manpads proliferation?

The perceived gap between the U.S. and Europe evident in the inability to do much to counter Iran would provide another motivation to shape events by a terrorist act.

In a fragile global economic situation, what impact would such an assault on the civil airliner system have?  Would it rival or even surpass the impact of 9/11 on a recovering airline sector?  An activist US regime in 9/11 as well as a Europe with growing global reach was able to mobilize and to deal with the aftershocks of 9/11 on the airline industry?

Would the current Administration and European crises permit such a relative rapid response?

The initial reaction to such a manpad attack would clearly be to focus on the source of the attack.  Intelligence sharing would be crucial to determine who and where the source of the threat lies.  But they would be immediate concern with copycat activities of other groups who might see an advantage from disrupting specific countries and to try to isolate them by using pressure to shut down airline based travel and commerce.

Within countries like Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, there are distinct advantages by outsider groups to use such tactics to shape the political process.

In the wake of such an attack, Europe and the United States and Asia would go back to planning underway when the Bush Administration was in power.  The need to introduce defensive measures, certainly on the largest and least agile airliners – 747s and A380s – would be debated.

A significant redirection of activity towards the defense of airports and airliners would clearly enter the public domain and clash with resource allocations to the social sector seen as vital to political stability in the US and Europe. Who would lead this and with what effectiveness?

And the ability to surge DIRCM (Direct Infrared Counter Measures) would be difficult.  But perhaps a pooling of resources of the major producers Northrop Grumman, Thales, EADS and Israel companies might be possible.  And money surged to provide at least the protection to the largest airliners.

Another alternative being considered behind the scenes is surging Air Force, Army and Navy systems, which can fly and detect threats.

As one key player in such systems recently commented: Hostile fire indication is at the heart of effective defensive system.  So the first thing is to know you’re being shot at it whether it’s small arms, RPGs, a MANPAD, what’s coming your way. Do I know I’m being shot at it and is it coming at me? You can shape such capabilities on civil airliners at effective cost.

What is not cheap is putting the actual response mechanisms on those aircraft.  Perhaps a system of sensors on the civil airliner with airborne or ground based counter-missile systems might prove to be effective and reasonable in cost in relative terms.”

When the Bush Administration was in power and DHS focusing its attention on the manpads problem there was significant focus on how to defend key airports rather than to provide expensive defensive mechanisms for each airliner.  Defense against manpads through area defense might come to the fore as threats identify the most vulnerable airports.

In an already fragile economic environment, would the disruption of the global civil airline system not have significant consequences beyond the challenge of security itself?

Would the G whatever be able to pull together common threads for a response to save the sector from a significant and rapid downturn?

As with all Gray Swan or “Big Fat Tail” events, the impact of the event is due to the spiral effects, not simply the event in and of itself.

For a look at the threat and some measures to deal with the threat see


For some Manpad story links see