According to the U.S. State Department, since 2003 over 32,000 illicitly held and loosely secured shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles have been destroyed. More commonly known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), these weapons can shoot down civilian and military aircraft.

It is estimated that since the 1970s over 40 aircraft have been shot down by the shoulder-fired missiles. Because they are small, lightweight, and inexpensive, they are a favorite weapon among terrorists. Nearly every country maintains a stockpile of them, including the U.S. Thus, there are serious concerns when weak states lose control of their stockpiles, as is the case in Libya. There have been numerous reports of weapons depots being cleared out by rebels, Libyan soldiers, and unknown actors.

With rumors that stockpiles of weapons were transported across Libya’s borders, there are new fears that members of al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups may be seizing the opportunity to acquire MANPADS and other hardware. An interagency team was sent from Washington last month to Libya’s neighbors to discuss border security and how to identify the weapons. Given Libya’s poor population and porous borders, it is now the international hotbed for the black market trade of illicit weapons.

To combat the threat, the State Department is chairing an interagency task force to implement the U.S. International Aviation Threat Reduction Plan. The program seeks to eliminate or secure other countries’ excess or obsolete MANPADS that are in danger of falling into the hands of non-state actors.

The civilian aviation industry remains vulnerable. There are measures that can be taken (including ground-based directed energy weapons systems) that can destroy MANPADS as well as aircraft-based flares, decoys, and early warning sensors.

As we know from the recent attack in Oslo, Norway, terrorists will attempt to inflict as much damage as possible. Airplanes remain extremely vulnerable. Protecting against MANPADS is just one step in implementing a security strategy for safer skies.

Jake Wilson is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: