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Are Moammar Gadhafi’s Missiles Really Missing?

Igla SA-16

SA-16. Click on the image for more information.

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.


  1. It will only take 5 Surface to Air Missiles to change the world. Two Airliners shot out the Skies in a 48 hr. timeframe will cause havoc toward world travel. 2 Rotor craft shot down in Afganistan will force All Nato fixed as well as Rotor Craft to higher Altitudes just like the Stinger Missiles did with The Russians. 1 to be kept in reserve.

  2. If Al Quaeda wanted them that bad, they’d have already purchased them on the black market.

    (Hell, Pakistan makes a domestic MANPADS system, the Anza. If Al Quaeda wanted them, they could just have a crate picked up by a truck.

    As I say above, it’s not something they’re interested in much. It’s awkward and ineffective in comparison to easier, cheaper, more destructive attacks.)

  3. What’s an “IR jammer”?

    US military aircraft already have flares for the purpose of confusing IR-guided missiles.

    Civilian aircraft don’t need flare launchers- because they’re useless without warning of incoming fire, and it’d cost a hell of a lot more to put missile launch detection systems on commercial aircraft. Even the military seems to still mostly depend on human eyes spotting the smoke trail…

    (And none of those SAM systems can reach a plane at cruising altitude – they’re all only good against an airliner when landing or taking off.

    It’s basically a non-threat. Terrorists can do more damage and cause more, well, terror, with less money and hassle, in other ways.)

  4. Normally the batteries on these things have a shelf life. When they are in storage a few years they are worthless. That is why Reagan could ship them to the Afghanistan Mujihadeen without much worry that they would be sold as anything but a trophy after the war was over.

    Commercial aircraft have multiple engines. Normally these take out one engine at best.

    El-Al aircraft have IR jammers on them. Decide who to fly.

  5. “…and can only be vehicle fired.”

    Guess the author never watched that Mad Max movie or saw all the rebel Toyota trucks in Libya with heavy weapons mounted on them….

  6. Human Rights Watch is afraid the missles in question won’t end up in the hands of the jihadis, so they are calling attention to them as a reminder.

  7. Please try to wrap your working neurons around the idea that some rebels might sell / give hand-held missiles to terrorists who would use them to shoot down commercial jets outside Libya.

    I’m skeptical that Libya had 20,000 hand-held surface-to-air missiles, but even if they had a hundred, and only ten got into Al Qaeda’s hands, that would be something really to worry about.

  8. Why travel to Libya? Just head on over to any ATF office and tell them you are a representative of the Zeta cartel and you’d like a couple.

  9. Unlike Bush, I gather Obama won’t be flying in to visit US troops, nearby in the region.

  10. The NATO campaign included helicopters and some low-altitude runs. You’d figure Gadhafi’s dudes would have taken some pot shots if they really had thousands of those things lying around.

    Best guess: they were sold off years ago by whoever was in charge of the ammo dumps.

  11. Yes, next to useless against NATO as they have decent CM.

  12. And if they are, who cares? You can buy these things wholesale from the Russians, Chinese, Iran etc. If its a problem you should figure out why they did not spend the Solayndra $500m to put IR jammers on US planes.

  13. used on who ? the rebels had and have no air assets to shoot at and they would be next to useless against the NATO bombing campaign …

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