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.That's as nice and short a summary of the situation as I have seen. Simmins asks:
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.A good question. Well, actually, two good questions. As I said yesterday:
[L]et's be clear about the numbers. Gadhafi had 20,000 of these SAMs. We do not know how many are missing. It does not necessarily mean that 20,000 are missing.So, where does this 20,000 figure come from?
Simmins mentions "paperwork and empty crates" that were left behind. Who is checking this paperwork? If the NTC can't even guard the weapon caches then they likely can't be checking on the paperwork. There are supposedly US contractors following up. Human Rights Watch seems to have info on it, but what is their source?
And I still wonder about the launch tubes. Can't launch these things without tubes. Is anyone tracking the tubes?
Second question, if Gadhafi did have 20,000 of these missiles, as Simmins asks, why weren't they used?
The simple answer is that the rebels did not have air power. NATO used air power to support the Libyan rebels, but many of these missiles (particularly the MANPADS) are designed for low-flying ground attack planes and helicopters. NATO was generally using high-altitude attacks to minimize casualties. Additionally, these are also heat-seeking missiles and NATO warplanes typically have countermeasures for heat-seekers.
This is a good chance to correct something I said yesterday. I said that these missiles did not have the equipment to be used as MANPADS. That is correct only for the SA-24, which is vehicle launched. In the flurry of reports about the situation, I confused the missiles. The SA-7 and SA-16 are indeed MANPADS.
But the questions stand. Is the simple answer the correct one?