Statistically Low Threats Waste State Dept. Resources

A policy seeking to better control the distribution of military-grade explosives appears, at first, to be thoroughly sensible. State Department efforts to decommission and regulate global stockpiles of hand-held anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADs) are one such initiative — after all, such weapons could pose a terrorist or military threat.

However, focusing on such “flashy” and photogenic technologies misses a more mundane, but far more deadly problem: improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The U.S. would be better off helping regulate common agricultural fertilizer and industrial chemicals than missiles, because IEDs have cost many more innocent lives.

The State Department’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement operates in 50 countries, where it supports nations who wish to decommission or secure their weapons stockpiles. Since 2003, its MANPAD initiative has been a flagship program, addressing the proliferation of hand-held missiles to terrorists or irregular military forces.

The statistics might seem to bear this threat out. Since 1975, 40 civilian aircrafts have been hit by MANPADS, causing about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths around the world. To address this, the program has now destroyed or impounded thousands of MANPADs in regions like the Balkans, East Africa, and Central Asia.

However this program — whilst admittedly not overly expensive in terms of budget — is perhaps a rather inconsequential effort.

For a start, “loose” MANPADs in unlocked government warehouses are one thing. But militant or terrorist groups can hardly be expected to cooperate with U.S. decommissioning efforts. As these are exactly the groups you can expect to hold “at risk” missiles, this renders the effort hollow.

Yet more importantly, the physical risk from MANPADs is simply low. The total number of people killed by MANPADs in 30 years is in fact lower then the number of casualties from civilian air crashes in 2010 alone. It is an incredibly rare occurrence — a long shot risk. This makes the State Department claim of a “vital national security interest” seem over-stretched.

This is important, because elsewhere a far more mundane policy endeavor seeks to rectify a genuinely prolific security threat: IEDs. The World Customs Organization’s “Global Shield” program has the decidedly unglamorous objective of better regulating and monitoring the customs handling of fertilizer and industrial chemical deliveries worldwide.

However, when you realize that nitrate-based fertilizer and commonly sold “precursor chemicals” are the primary ingredients of explosives, the importance is made clear. Indeed, the scale of the threat is staggering. In 2010 alone, an estimated 25,000 people were killed in around 6,000 terrorist or militant attacks by IEDs worldwide.

So, Global Shield is a perfect example of a targeted “at-source” policy. The goal is not costly intelligence of military intervention, but mere government regulation on a commonly available agricultural product. Even better, because such regulations push the trade of these products through customs in some less-regulated ports and borders, it decreases illicit tax avoidance. In short, the policy can pay for itself.

None of this is to say securing MANPADs is not a useful goal - such weapons are not harmless. But the scale of the problem is hugely out-weighed by the threat of IEDs. Targeting the chemical ingredients of such devices is hardly glamorous work, and it won’t make any headlines. But it could be far more worthwhile.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons