Al Qaeda’s firing of surface-to-air (SAM) missiles at an Israeli civilian airliner shortly after takeoff Nov. 28 has begun to trigger a robust debate in the West over the need to protect U.S. passenger jets from terrorists using ground-fired missiles. Although the attack in Mombasa, Kenya, failed to bring down the plane, which had 261 persons aboard, it serves as yet another reminder of the terrorist threat to commercial aviation.
As the West bolsters its ability to prevent a repetition of events like the September 11 hijackings, terrorist groups like al Qaeda can be expected to search for new ways to attack soft targets like the 5,000 U.S. commercial jet aircraft currently in operation. SA-7 missiles like the ones used in Kenya offer one way to get the job done. One missile, which weighs roughly 30 pounds, can be toted around in a large duffel bag. On the black market, the missile can be purchased for as little as $5,000.
While U.S. security officials state that they have no specific information of a plan to use surface-to-air missiles in this country, the federal government is working to ensure that such an attack doesn’t occur. In May, after al Qaeda tried unsuccessfully to shoot down a U.S. warplane in Saudi Arabia, the FBI issued an alert to law enforcement that the group could attack a commercial airline in the United States.
There’s no question that technological countermeasures to thwart such an attack already exist. In late August, the Defense Department awarded a contract to Northrop Grumman Corp. to provide Air Force cargo planes with equipment to protect them from portable missiles like SA-7s or Stingers. The cost of the defense system is slightly more than $5 million per plane.
In Israel, where commercial aviation arguably faces a greater threat from terrorism than any other nation, a government-owned firm known as Rafael Industries has begun emergency production of a missile defense system to protect civilian planes when they are the most vulnerable during take-off or landing. The device senses that a heat-seeking missile is coming toward a plane and uses a beam of light to throw the missile off course.
The system, called “Brightening,” is “fully autonomous the pilot doesn’t actually know that something has happened, and if something happens, the system does protect the aircraft,” a Rafael Industries scientist, Patrick Bar-Avi, told channelnewsasia.com in an interview last week. The device is expected to cost hundreds of thousands per plane. Israeli Foreign Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has suggested establishing an international consortium with other nations targeted by terrorists to share expenses involved in developing the technology.
But, in the United States, numerous defense and aviation experts are decidedly skeptical of any crash program to develop the technology to defend against such attacks. In interviews with The Washington Times, several raised the following concerns: A) the cost, and whether the airlines or the taxpayer would foot the bill; and B) the low likelihood of a such an attack taking place on U.S. soil.
Given the serious financial problems faced by American air carriers, there is good reason to doubt their ability to pay the cost, which could run to $7 billion over the next several years a modest investment compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars each year that this country already spends on defense and homeland security. Indeed, a compelling philosophical case can be made that this is legitimately a national-security-related expense that taxpayers should bear. As to the unlikelihood of such an attack, very few Americans went to sleep on Sept. 10, 2001, expecting that terrorists would hijack airliners, crash them into buildings and murder thousands of their countrymen the following day.
The bottom line is this: Over the long run, the worst thing that could happen to the airline industry and American wartime morale would be a missile attack that brought down an American plane. U.S. officials need to take a serious look at technologies like the one being developed by Israel. If any turn out to be feasible, the U.S. government should forge ahead with its support.