The Return of the Stinger Missile
Having fallen out of favor years ago, the Pentagon is suddenly scrambling to bring back the FIM-92 Stinger missile as both something soldiers are trained to use, and which troops deployed overseas are armed with.
Couched as a new anti-drone solution, the reintroduction of the Stinger as a regular part of the U.S. arsenal inevitably risks the return of the Stinger’s disastrous proliferation threat internationally, a long-time problem for a missile that has had little or no real utility for the U.S. military.
“Bringing back the Stinger addresses a self-identified gap that the Army created and has recognized,” Lieutenant Colonel Aaron Felter, the Director of Training and Doctrine at the Army’s Air Defense Integrated Office, told Defense News earlier this month. “We’re getting back to the basics and providing short-range air defense to maneuver units.”
Introduced into service in the early 1980s, the Stinger missile is the top in class MANPADS (man-portable air defense system), a shoulder-launched anti-aircraft weapon that is both the lightest available, and has the biggest warhead.
That all sounds great on paper, but the reality is that the U.S. military, with its massive air force and its arsenal of vehicle-launched Patriot missiles, is simply never in a position where air superiority in an engagement is dependent on rank-and-file infantry firing at enemy aircraft with short-range MANPADS.
Unsurprisingly, this has meant the U.S. military has essentially never had occasion to use the Stinger to any real effect. The current gaggle of wars, indeed, have been with enemies who have little or often no air force at all, which is a big part of why the Pentagon has moved away from training and fielding the missiles. They’re just not useful.
Which isn’t to say the Stinger missiles are all sitting in a warehouse somewhere. Quite the contrary, the Reagan administration was quite eager to get these missiles into the hands of U.S.-backed insurgencies, primarily the Afghan mujahideen and the UNITA movement in Angola.
The Stinger missile was a great weapon for insurgency and quasi-terrorist movements for many of the same reasons it was impractical for the U.S. military. Such groups rarely had air superiority in any engagement, and they were more than willing to depend on their infantry taking pot-shots at enemy aircraft, hoping to get lucky against high-value targets.
While the exact success rates of such missiles were hotly disputed, the Stinger was in big part credited for the defeat of the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan. U.S. efforts to buy back the remaining missile stockpile from the mujahideen, however, didn’t go so well, and those arms ended up at best on the black market, and at worst in the hands of the post-mujaheddin groups like al-Qaeda, which became the backbone of international terrorism in the decades to come.
As happy as the U.S. was to see Soviet aircraft downed with Stingers, Rep. Charlie Wilson, one of the architects of this effort, admitted that he “lived in terror” of the thought those Stingers would eventually be shooting down civilian airliners.
And they almost certainly did. While there often isn’t good information on what shot down overseas planes, MANPADS have been responsible for such shoot-downs, and credited to groups like Sri Lanka’s rebel LTTE, whose MANPADS were primarily Stinger missiles.
These missiles are still out there in substantial numbers, and while militants have tended to prefer using them on enemy helicopters and the like, every unaccounted-for Stinger makes civilian air travel more dangerous.
While Stinger missiles conceivably would be effective at shooting down small drones, it seems like massive overkill to unleash them for this task, with small arms and electronic counter measures just as capable for neutralizing drone threats. These are cheaper solutions and better still, don’t come with the proliferation risk that the Stinger missiles are primarily known for.
It’s not hard to see where this will lead. A newfound interest in training and arming U.S. troops with Stingers will also mean an interest in training and arming U.S. allies who have limited air defenses with the same missiles. And as before, it will likely be regional insurgencies and small client states that get such attention.
The U.S. military engagement across Africa and the Middle East means a lot of potential recipients, and most alarmingly, a lot of recipients with a well-documented inability to keep a handle on U.S.-provided arms.
Somalia is a primary example of a nation with limited air defenses, and a war on terror that might easily place them at the top of the list for “anti-drone” weaponry like this. Somalia has also seen its U.S.-provided weapons stolen and sold on the black market in massive quantities before.
The U.S. has proven time and again to make poor decisions on who can be trusted with such arms, and is better off not getting back into the business of putting more Stingers out into the world today.
Jason Ditz is news editor at Antiwar.com, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the cause of non-interventionism. His work has also appeared in Forbes, Toronto Star, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Providence Journal, Daily Caller, Washington Times and Detroit Free Press.