The collapse of Muammar Qaddafi's regime in Libya puts new emphasis on one of the U.S. State Department's major policy components -- conventional weapons nonproliferation. The State Department is certain what little nuclear elements Qaddafi had are secure. The biggest worry is conventional weapons, especially the shoulder-fired missiles known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS.
State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said in a press conference August 25, 2011, that the U.S. wants to be certain the Libyan Transitional National Council, or TNC (the rebel entity that the U.S. and many other nations have recognized as Libya's legitimate government) is prepared to secure potentially missing weapons.
Military regimes such as Qaddafi's buy all types of weapons systems from the lowest bidder. While Qaddafi certainly had tanks and aircraft, regimes like his also want smaller, more cost-efficient systems, such as the MANPADS. Nuland addressed those, as well as the possibility of missing nuclear or chemical components in Libya.
Nuland said rumors and press reports of wide varieties of weapons missing in Libya are "fear mongoring."
"The main concern in Libya is MANPADS," said Nuland. "We've been working with the TNC . . . for a number of months. We've been working with all of the neighbors on any MANPADS that might have been proliferated or could be proliferated. The TNC wants to continue this work with us."
Nuland said no one is sure how many MANPADS might be hidden in Libya. Qaddafi was "good at hiding stuff," she said. "That also goes for stockpiles of weapons that the TNC has been uncovering around the country and wants to get rid of as it finds it."
Nuland said the U.S. has already contributed $3 million to help find and destroy conventional weapons in post-Qaddafi Libya. The money is also to train Libyans to remove and destroy weapons. "Those programs we expect will accelerate as the TNC takes full control," she said.
MANPADS are an advanced, military system that guides its missiles to a target (unlike shoulder-fired rocket propelled grenades that have no guidance). Military aircraft, such as U.S. fighters over Iraq or Afghanistan, are obvious targets, but MANPADS are also terror weapons. According to the State Department, MANPADS have hit 40 civilian aircraft since 1975, downing 28 of them. MANPADS have also killed some 800 civilians. Thus the State Department's urgency to halt proliferation of any MANPADS that may have gotten loose in the chaos surrounding Qaddafi's fall.
Nuclear Weapons in Libya?
Nuland put to rest fears that any Qaddafi-held nuclear material could fall into the wrong hands.
She said that, "all sensitive elements of Libya's nuclear program . . . were removed in early 2004. The last of the highly enriched uranium, the bomb-making fuel, was removed from Libya in 2009."
Nuland said Libya does have a supply of "yellowcake" uranium, but it is safe at the Tajura nuclear research facility. "We are able, though our national technical means, to assert that we believe that it is secure and . . . in any case, Libya doesn't have the means right now to turn yellowcake into anything dangerous," she said.
Yellowcake is uranium that has been milled, or "leached," to separate out non-radioactive minerals.
Nuland also addressed the possibility of unsecured chemical weapons in Libya. She said that, while Qaddafi had some "mustard agent" (the basis of the caustic "mustard gas", first used in World War I), it is locked safely inside Libya's Wadden ammunition reserve.
"It is inside massive steel containers within heavy bunkers," Nuland said. "These bunkers were sealed by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW. Our judgment is that they remain secure. And again, these are not weapon-ready chemicals; they can't be converted on a dime and they're in these massive drums inside a heavy bunker and we are able to monitor the security with national technical means."