- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

The welcome news that the Federal Aviation Administration may require airlines to reduce the risk of center fuel tank explosions by employing new “inerting technology” is critical to eliminating a vulnerability exploited by terrorists. Although FAA AdministratorMarionBlakey presented the agency’s proposal as a safety measure to prevent accidental explosions, aviation security experts know the real aim is to make it harder for terrorists to bomb aircraft. For 15 years now, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has known with certainty that terrorists use center fuel tanks to destroy passenger planes.

In 1989, according to the NTSB, terrorists destroyed an Avianca Airlines jet by placing a small bomb over the center fuel tank. The methodology relies on a terrorist smuggling a small amount of plastic or liquid explosive inside a passenger jet. The bomb is then detonated in a row of seats located near the center of the plane, immediately over the fuel tank. While it is extremely rare to ignite aviation fuel with a mere spark (to this day, NTSB investigators cannot explain the source of ignition that caused the presumably accidental explosion of TWA Flight 800 in 1996), the energy from even a small amount of high explosives will initiate a catastrophic explosion of the fuel tank. The bomb works best when it is a shaped charge that channels its explosive energy down through the floor of the aircraft directly into the tank. This is the effect Richard Reid had in mind when he boarded American Airlines Flight 63 with explosives laced to his feet.

Al Qaeda has experimented with this technique for attacking 747 aircraft. Pakistani-born terrorist Ramzi Youssef, who is now in prison for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, planned to blow up a dozen U.S. jumbo jets on a single day using bombs over center fuel tanks. To calibrate the precise amount of explosive needed, Youssef conducted a test bombing on a Philippine Airlines jet. Fortunately, he and his co-conspirators were foiled after a fire in their Manila safehouse resulted in authorities detecting their plot to blow up passenger planes on trans-Pacific routes before it could be put into effect. It was in this same safehouse that Filipino security services found documents outlining plans to crash aircraft into government buildings in Washington.

Some experts believe that TWA 800 was actually destroyed by a bomb of this type rather than by the accidental ignition of the center fuel tank. According to Larry Johnson, a former CIA and State Department counter-terrorism official who participated in the Pan Am Flight 103 probe, an FBI official told him that Youssef claimed in 1996 that al Qaeda had destroyed TWA 800. Approximately 5 percent of the wreckage of TWA 800 — some eight tons of the plane, equivalent to a mid-sized cargo truck — has never been recovered. Mr. Johnson told me that the Pan Am 103 aircraft pieces, which bore evidence of a bomb attack, were “small enough to fit on top of a table.” The precise source of the explosion of TWA 800 — whether a bomb, a missile or malfunctioning equipment — has never been identified and may never be known.

But that should not deter the FAA from issuing new regulations requiring that center fuel tanks be rendered inert. This will not only prevent the minuscule chance of an accidental explosion, but will also deter the greater likelihood of terrorist bomb attacks on passenger aircraft.

If the past is any guide, the airline industry will try to block or delay the new rules. Miss Blakey, in an effort to assuage the industry, has already proposed an implementation schedule that is far too lenient. Under her proposal, the new rule would not go into effect until 2006, 10 years after the TWA 800 explosion that killed 230 people. Even then, retrofitting of large passenger aircraft will not be completed until 2013 — a full 24 years since the Avianca Airlines bombing.

There is no excuse for this inertia in guarding against terrorist bombings of center fuel tanks. The cost of the inerting technology developed by the FAA will range between $140,000 to $220,000 per aircraft. Miss Blakey proposes to require some 3,800 airplanes to be fitted with the new technology. That totals about $68 million for the industry to comply fully with the FAA proposal. This is paltry compared to the multibillion-dollar cost of bailing out the industry after security failures like those of September 11. Equipping planes with the new technology should be a top priority in the war on terrorism.

John B. Roberts II is a former Reagan White House official who writes frequently on terrorism and national security matters.

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