Stingers, Stingers, Who's Got the Stingers?

A cheat sheet for the news.
Oct. 3 2001 3:00 AM

Stingers, Stingers, Who's Got the Stingers?

We gave them to the mujahideen. We sold them to our allies. Will they end up biting us back? 

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration armed the mujahideen with deadly Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to battle Soviet aircraft. The Taliban now possess some of those weapons and could use them to shoot down U.S. aircraft in the event of a U.S. assault. But the Taliban aren't the only ones armed with Stingers. Dozens of them have found their way to enemy states and terrorist groups, and other nations have reverse-engineered the weapons to make their own versions of the Stinger.

How many Stingers did the U.S. give to the mujahideen? Who else has them? More to the point, who doesn't? And what sort of danger do they pose for U.S. forces and their allies?

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The Stinger is 5 feet long, 2.75 inches in diameter, and weighs 34.5 pounds fully armed. Relatively simple to operate—"the missile's complexity can be accommodated by almost any potential user nation or group," says a U.S. military fact sheet—and with a vertical range of about 10,000 feet, it employs a heat-seeking sensor to home in on an aircraft's engine. The Stinger can be fired from as far away as 5 miles and is capable of bringing down military helicopters, air-fueling tankers, and low-flying warplanes. They're utterly lethal against civilian airliners, which deploy none of the countermeasures found on military aircraft. (Raytheon makes the current Stinger; General Dynamics produced the earlier model sent to the Afghan rebels.)

The decision to send Stingers to Afghanistan was part of a multibillion-dollar U.S. program to arm the mujahideen. The leading advocates came from Congress, notably Sen. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., who complained that the United States must supply the rebels with high-tech weapons if they were to challenge the Red Army. Opposing the transfer was the CIA, which warned that supplying the mujahideen with Stingers might provoke Soviet retaliation against Pakistan, the base for the CIA's rebel support effort. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., prophetically worried aloud that the rebels—dominated by Islamic fundamentalists who loathed the West almost as much as they hated the Soviets—might share the deadly Stingers with terrorist groups.

But Congress approved the deal, and the CIA shipped a batch of 300 Stingers to the rebels in 1986 and 700 more the following year. "We were handing them out like lollipops," an American intelligence official later told the Washington Post.

Before the Stingers' arrival in Afghanistan, the mujahideen had virtually no defense against the Red Army's MI-24 Hind gunships, which sported massive firepower and carried up to eight combat troops. The first time the rebels deployed the Stingers, they brought down three Hinds, and they downed about 275 Russian aircraft before the Red Army retreated in 1989.

"The Stingers neutralized Soviet air power and marked a strategic turning point in the war," says Vincent Cannistraro, a former CIA officer who was involved in the Afghan operation.

Three years later, the mujahideen overthrew a left-wing government left behind in Kabul by the Russians. It wasn't long before the various rebel factions turned on each other and Afghanistan fell into chaos, leaving hundreds of unused Stingers unaccounted for.

Even before the Soviet departure, the Stingers had begun dispersing to the four corners of the Earth. In the late '80s, Iranian Revolutionary Guards ambushed a mujahideen military caravan and made off with several dozen missiles. The Iranians promptly put the Stingers into service on their patrol boats. Pakistani intelligence, which distributed the CIA-supplied arms to the mujahideen during the war, skimmed a number off the top. Islamabad not only stockpiled its Stingers but also sold a model to China, which through reverse-engineering developed its own version.

The mujahideen also dispensed Stingers to their Islamic allies. Among the lucky recipients were rebel groups in places like Tajikistan, Chechnya, and Algeria. Meanwhile, the Pentagon approved the sale of Stingers to at least 21 countries, mostly NATO allies but also Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and South Korea. The Soviets stole design data and Stinger components from the Greek army and used the information to build the SAM-14 Gremlin, which is said to be a virtual copy of the Stinger.