- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Last week’s arrest of a man charged with trying to sell a Man-Portable Air Defense (MANPAD) weapon system appears to have been a wake-up call for most of America. While the profile of the MANPAD threat is startling to many Americans, MANPADs have been considered a serious threat to aviation, both military and civilian, for quite some time by the intelligence community. MANPADs are an excellent example of the growing number of weapons of mass murder our country faces in a 21st-century world in which a growing number of small enemies are focused on total war with the United States.

The SA-18 MANPAD system involved in last week’s arrest is a very capable system, one designed to take down U.S. and allied advanced tactical strike and fighter aircraft. While a MANPAD is considered a tactical weapon when used against military aircraft, when one uses it against a civilian airliner, it becomes a weapon of mass murder. Military strike planning teams for years have planned flight profiles over hostile territory to avoid such a system because it can not be easily detected or defeated, like traditional non-portable enemy surface-to-air missile systems. If the military considers it a serious threat to tactical aircraft and plans accordingly,theFederal AviationAdministration (FAA) and the Transportation SecurityAdministration (TSA) should as well when faced with the realities of the MANPAD system.

Here are the facts the FAA and the TSA must consider. Thousands of MANPAD systems exist around the world, many in countries that support terrorism. On the black market, the systems can be purchased for less than $100,000. The systems are easy to conceal and transport, and with a little bit of training, easy to operate. Commercial airliners fly into the weapon system’s operating envelope during each takeoff and landing. Terrorists know America and its allies have beefed up security to prevent hijackings and therefore are lookingforalternative means to attack the civil aviation industry and increase the fear factor of flying. The final and most important fact the FAA must consider is that terrorists have already demonstrated their intent to use MANPADs on civilian aircraft on more than one occasion.

While Americans have received a wake-up call to the threat of MANPADs, experts in the FAA, DOD, the intelligencecommunity,and the Department of Homeland Security have been looking into options to counter the MANPAD threat. Some experts in the aviation safety field have endorsed the installationofhigh-tech countermeasure systems such as flare dispensers and or a light beam system aboard all civilian airliners. Both systems would theoretically draw an inbound heat-seeking missile, such as the SA-18, away from the aircraft. While I strongly support the immediate installation of such systems aboard all civilian aircraft, I believe if one looks at the flare systems already installed on military aircraft, such countermeasure systems cannot guarantee a 100 percent success rate. Another important consideration is that it would be several years before such counter-measure systems could be installed on all civilian aircraft.

When faced with a reality such as MANPADs, one must look beyond the normal American approach to defeat the opposition utilizing a high-tech system that takes years to implement. The enemy possesses the capability and intent to use this weapon of mass murder now and will not wait until 2006, when our aircraft have the countermeasure systems installed. One option the government could implement in relatively short order is the use of the National Guard to patrol the perimeter of major airports. With over 400 airports to patrol in the U.S., this is a large task, one many might call futile. However, if the National Guard approaches the task like any standard security detail or counterterrorism team does to counter a sniper threat, the National Guard could study each airport for likely areas an enemy would use to conduct a MANPAD system and plan surveillance accordingly. On the diplomatic front, the United States should work the MANPAD issue with the international community because MANPADs are a threat to all nation-states that depend on aviation for travel and commerce. In working with the international community, tighter controls could be placed on the sale of such weapon systems and a greater emphasis placed on removing the supply of such systems from the black market. While the above options cannot guarantee America will stop an attempt by a well-prepared terrorist group, the options could be implemented quickly and would likely disrupt any current planning by a terrorist cell.

While the security and aviation experts debate the options on what to do against the MANPAD threat, let’s not forget that select terrorist groups are engaged in total war against the United States and its close allies. This enemy will not wait for us to counter their capability, and this enemy will look at every option to counter our counter-measures. We must analyze each new threat to us quickly, react decisively, and use all available high-tech and low-tech means at our disposal. When faced with the Security threats of the 21st Century such as the MANPAD and bioterrorism, time is not a luxury we have in protecting the safe, prosperous, and free system of democracy in which we live.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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