For many people, "nonstate actors" are supposed to be ill-equipped militias, warlord bands or Vietcong insurgents in black pajamas. Because they lack sophisticated weapons, so the common assumption goes, they resort to irregular guerilla tactics. But if they somehow got modern precision weapons, it is often argued, they would quickly become a grave danger to state militaries like the Americans' – or the Ukrainians. In fact, the increasing proliferation of modern weapons to nonstate actors has given rise to a new category of "hybrid" threats – nonstate actors who combine irregular or terrorist tactics with precision firepower, and which many now see as a central defense planning challenge for the United States.
This brings us to the problem of the Russian-designed SA-11 antiaircraft missile now widely believed to have shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17 on July 17. Many now assume that Ukrainian separatist rebels acquired at least one SA-11 TEL (transporter-erector-launcher), and used it to fire the fatal shot. The SA-11 is certainly a sophisticated weapon: a modern, radar-guided surface-to-air missile (SAM), it has a slant range of over 20 miles, a speed of about Mach 3, and is capable of tracking and engaging multiple high-performance aircraft simultaneously. How, then, could such a sophisticated weapon shoot down a civilian airliner? And what, if anything, does this tell us about the larger problem of how to assess the threat posed by advanced weapons in nonstate actors' hands?
In fact the real military capability conveyed by any given weapon is only weakly related to the weapon's technical characteristics. Especially for nonstate militaries, the presence or absence of the institutional infrastructure needed to use complex systems effectively is a much stronger predictor of real power. Some nonstate actors are actually surprisingly mature on this score; others much less so. And the difference matters – a lot.