- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 20, 2003

The government is studying defense systems for commercial airplanes to meet the threat posed by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, such as the one involved in the arrest last week of a man accused of trying to sell one of these easily portable and relatively inexpensive weapons to a group of terrorists.

“The threat is significant,” Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s aviation subcommittee, said this week. “We’ve been fortunate so far.”

“We know that several dozen terrorist organizations have either sought or gained access to these weapons,” he said, adding that the threat was probably worse abroad than in the United States.

Mary Schiavo, a former government aviation safety official who has since made it her business to draw public attention to the risks associated with flying, said that, since 1970, there have been almost twice as many attempts to shoot down nonmilitary aircraft as to bomb them — 59 to 31.

Mr. Mica said that the technology to protect military aircraft from heat-seeking missiles — which aim themselves at the infrared energy put out by a jet engine — can be adapted to civilian jetliners. He hopes the system can be put on at least a few of the nation’s 6,000-plus commercial planes “within the next 12 months.”

But the technology doesn’t come cheap. The cost could be as high as $2 million per aircraft and even if only a small proportion of planes are outfitted the result is likely to be a bonanza for defense contractors, and a huge bill for either the taxpayer or an airline industry that — despite a huge federal bailout after September 11 — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse.

The Department for Homeland Security is studying a number of proposals for technology that confuses missile-guidance systems in different ways — either by using flares, lamps or lasers — and that could be used on civilian aircraft.

Their plan calls for this study to be completed by October, but the department sees antimissile technology as just one tactic in defending civil aviation from the threat, according to spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. He said others include intelligence and law enforcement activities — like last week’s sting operation — and “area denial” — securing the perimeter and surrounding areas of airports to stop terrorists from launching missiles.

The bottom line: There is no commitment from the administration to actually outfit civilian aircraft, according to Deputy Secretary Gordon England.

“I don’t think [commercial airliners equipped with antimissile technology is] inevitable,” he told the Heritage Foundation yesterday, “but I do think it’s prudent to be prepared.”

He said the study program the department had embarked on meant that “if it’s felt necessary in the future, we would have a reliable approach … a solution to this potential problem.”

Dissatisfied with answers like these from the administration, Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, and other congressional Democrats are continuing to press a bill she drafted after an al Qaeda cell in Kenya narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet with a shoulder-launched missile last year.

The bill would mandate the installation of missile-defense systems on all new jet aircraft used for scheduled passenger flights — and the federally funded retrofitting of all such existing planes — starting no later than the end of the year.

“I do not think [the administration] is moving fast enough,” she said, “and it’s because they don’t want to spend the money.” Estimates of the cost run from $7 billion to $14 billion.

Perhaps because of the huge costs, the airline industry remains cautious. “As with all terrorist threats, the question of what constitutes the most effective and appropriate response requires balance, perspective and information,” the Air Transport Association said in a statement welcoming the government’s decision to study “this untested technology” and explore “alternative solutions.”

Mrs. Boxer said that the money is worth it — and that the government should pay.

“If we can spend $45 billion a year in Iraq — which is what we’re doing at the moment, just for the military [costs] — why can’t we spend a million dollars per plane to protect the flying public?” Mrs. Boxer asked. “If Air Force One can have these defenses, why can’t the rest of us?”

Most military aircraft, including the President’s Air Force One, are equipped with antimissile technology. And El Al, the Israeli airline, is believed to use antimissile technology on its aircraft.

Responding to the growing pressure, a number of defense contractors have begun to tout their wares.

Northrop Grumman Corp. said their technology could be ready for use and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for civilian planes within nine months.

Robert DeBoca, who leads the company’s infrared countermeasures and laser-systems division, says it’s just a matter of “repackaging” the technology so that it can be installed on commercial jetliners.

Officials said maintenance is an issue because airliners in scheduled flights are expected to fly many, many more hours during a lifetime than military aircraft. Reliability is a question because — again in contrast to its role on military planes — the technology will only really be needed in the few seconds after takeoff and before landing, when the sensors that most types of equipment use to detect missile launches are most vulnerable to being confused by objects on the ground.

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