MANPAD proliferation in Burma and MENA: Is the SAM Genie out of the bottle?

December 8, 2019

It is hardly a secret that various nations have for several decades now supplied man-portable anti-aircraft missiles – known as MANPADS – to groups fighting their enemies.

The United States quite famously supplied FIM-92 Stinger missiles to the Mujahedeen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, in fact following the lead of the Soviets who supplied SA-7 missiles to various allied and anti-colonial forces throughout the 1960s and 70s.

However, the recent seizure of a sizeable quantity of weapons by the Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) held an interesting find; a Chinese-made FN-6 MANPADS.

This system has seen a great deal of proliferation recently, popping up in Syria and Iraq in substantial numbers and in the hands of various Islamists groups, including Islamic State. It is alleged that the Gulf Arab states are responsible for supplying these weapons in their attempts to topple the Assad regime.

These weapons continue to represent a real threat to modern forces, as an unfortunate Saudi Apache crew discovered recently over Yemen. And there can be no doubt that the EAOs are fully aware of the danger that Tatmadaw airpower poses to them, as well as the value in countering it. Thus it is logical that these groups would make their acquisition a priority.

But the Burmese seizure raises additional questions. The FN-6 was part of a large haul of weapons taken from the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). Hardly the biggest group amongst the myriad of Burma’s ethnic armed organisations (EAO) that are fighting the central government, the find was something of a shock.

It’s well publicised that the Chinese have supplied their neighbours of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) with a powerful modern arsenal, including drones and helicopters as well as the FN-6. And it is no shock for observers of the conflict to learn that some of the larger groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), have MANPADS’.

But the revelation that the Arakan Army – who’ve been fighting a rather savage war with the Tatmadaw since January 2019 – have acquired the FN-6 did raise eyebrows. The fact that the TNLA have them means that proliferation is far more widespread than expected.


Arakan Army Vice-Chief of Staff, Nyo Twan Awng, carrying an FN-6 MANPADS

That these weapons are appearing in such places raises the question of supply and, more importantly, support. One of the key facets in limiting the proliferation of these weapons was the difficulty in maintaining them over more than five years. The batteries they require to function and the rocket motors themselves degrade, reducing effectiveness.

Despite that, it is not wise to underestimate these weapons, even aged. The CIA made a committed effort to purchase old Stingers that were on the Afghan black market from 2001 with the US intervention in the country and the start of the War of Terror. Despite being out-of-date and probably non-functional, these leftovers were considered a real threat.

With nation states, such as Sudan and Iran, supplying advanced MANPADS’ to various groups, they are likely to appear anywhere, in any hands. This is hardly a new concern.

But nation states can be expected to attempt some control by withholding further supply of both missiles and, perhaps more importantly, the critical support parts for the systems. After all, left over weapons are a potential threat to their own interests, as the Americans found.

But if the Wa (which is to be assumed) are the suppliers of these weapons, the question remains just how far these weapons will go and into what hands they will fall. With new-made FN-6 missiles now appearing in unlikely places, the question of support becomes more important. The sheer opacity of the Chinese arms industry makes it impossible to know just how much state control is exerted on these sales and how much is simply done through black market deals by corrupt officials.

By removing nation state control of support and parts for these weapons and with non-state actors now acting as brokers for MANPADS proliferation, this critical control mechanism – limited as it was anyway – is now effectively on the open market and available for any group with the cash available.

And that can only mean the threat from these weapons will increase.

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