Since April 2011 the group Human Rights Watch has been warning about the dangers of unsecured munitions in Libya. Those complaints were renewed in recent news articles after HRW took reporters to munitions sites they believe had been looted. The Daily Caller and AFP both are reporting that up to 20,000 man-portable surface to air missiles have disappeared from Libyan military warehouses. Are those missiles missing or did they never exist?
There is some confusion in the various reports over just what types of missiles are missing. Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces are believed to have supplies of the SA-7 and SA-16 portable anti-aircraft systems as well as the SA-24 vehicle launched system. All three are Russian built and exported. The Russians have told Aviation Week that the SA-24 systems sold the Libyans lack the man-portable components needed and can only be vehicle fired.
The civil war in Libya continues with forces loyal to former leader Moammar Gadhafi holding out in a few cities. Most of the nation has now been taken by various forces from the National Transitional Council (NTC). The loose nature of the rebel organization has hampered resumption of governmental services in the areas that they control, and has allowed looting of governmental facilities to occur almost without interruption. Lots of munitions have disappeared and this is how the missiles are supposed to have vanished. All that was left was paperwork and empty crates.
Some of the looting has been done by forces aligned with the NTC. Both official and unofficial NTC units have little logistics capability and the NTC has been unable to organize an effective supply system. Humanitarian assistance is being provided to much of the civilian population through a number of aid charities but they do not supply armed groups.
If the Libyan military had access to so many weapons, why were they not used? One answer could be that the 20,000 number cited by HRW and others is grossly exaggerated. There is a clear risk of looted munitions, including these missiles, being transferred to terrorist groups. What is unclear is just what is missing.