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.

Stingers inevitably turned up for sale on the international black market. Alan Kuperman, author of a history of the Stinger transfer published in 1999 in Political Science Quarterly, puts the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Iraq, Qatar, Zambia, and North Korea among the nations to acquire the Stinger. They are also believed to be in the arsenal of anti-government guerrillas in Turkey and Sri Lanka, as well as Hezbollah guerrillas operating in Lebanon. In 1990, two Colombian drug dealers were arrested in Tampa, Fla., after attempting to arrange the purchase of Stingers for the Medellín Cartel. The following year, U.S. Customs agents in Miami arrested four men and charged them with attempting to smuggle Stingers and other weapons to Yugoslavia.

In the early '90s, Stingers were used in a flurry of attacks against military and possibly civilian aircraft. The Russian press reported that Islamic rebels used a Stinger to shoot down an Su-25 fighter-bomber over Tajikistan, and a U.N. investigation fingered the U.S.-made missile in an attack that brought down an Italian supply plane. In 1993, Muslim separatists shot down a Georgian airliner, killing dozens of passengers aboard. Investigators never determined what type of missile was used, but shortly before the attack took place, separatist leaders had coyly hinted to reporters that they were the proud owners of a few Stingers.

To stem the damage, the CIA sought to buy back its missing Afghan Stingers. The agency allocated $65 million for the program—about twice the cost of the original 1,000 sent to the mujahideen—which commenced in 1993 and relied upon the help and cooperation of Pakistani intelligence.

The CIA offered so much for the wayward Stingers—at least $100,000 a copy and possibly as much as $200,000—that the program's most immediate effect was to drive up the price of Stingers on the international black market. "They were offering so much that sellers could take the money and buy themselves cheaper anti-aircraft missiles and other weaponry," says Kuperman.

A former intelligence officer familiar with the program calls the buyback effort an abysmal failure. "The things have spread so far that we don't even know where they are anymore," he says.

Errant Stingers are still with us. In 1999, the Indian government claimed that Muslim rebels in Kashmir used a Stinger to down a military helicopter, killing all five soldiers on board. One defendant testified in the trial earlier this year of the men who bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that he'd been commissioned to buy a plane for Osama Bin Laden in the mid-'90s. By his account, Bin Laden planned to use the plane to ship Stingers from Afghanistan to Sudan. And just weeks before Sept. 11, several Taliban soldiers carried Stingers on their shoulders during a military parade in Kabul.

During the past few decades, a variety of surface-to-air missiles—several may have been Stingers—have been used to shoot down 24 civilian aircraft, killing a total of almost 600 people. "After twenty years of reported instances of SAMs in the hands of rebel militias, narco-criminals, and terrorist groups, the potential for increased threats to civil aircraft has become a serious reality," says a Clinton-era report from the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security. "Fanatical elements [are] not deterred by the potential implications of mass casualties that could occur if a man-portable SAM were used against a commercial airliner."

Some say the military threat posed by the Stingers is overblown. In the past few weeks, a variety of military and intelligence sources have been quoted in the press as saying that the Stinger's battery packs are good for only four or five years, and hence any owned by the Taliban would be useless against an American-led military action in Afghanistan. However, a declassified Pentagon document obtained by Kuperman states that the battery packs have "a shelf life of at least 10 years, with a reliability rate of 98-99%."

John Pike, a weapons expert and head of GlobalSecurity.org, says the Stinger is not a "superweapon," but military strategists can't ignore it either. "There are newer and better SAMs on the market, but it's adequate to the task at hand," Pike says.

Ken Silverstein is a contributing editor at Harper's magazine.

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