Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Homeland Security officials yesterday announced the development of antimissile technology for commercial aircraft but said it will take $122 million and at least two years to implement.

A six-month first phase of the project will determine whether the concept is viable and can protect against the threat of Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, said Charles McQueary, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for science and technology.

BAE Systems, Northrup Grumman and United Airlines are negotiating with federal officials for $2 million each in the first phase to redesign existing military technology for commercial planes.

“At the end of the first phase, we will determine if it is appropriate to proceed to the second phase of prototype and testing,” Mr. McQueary said in a conference call with reporters.

After 12 to 18 months, the department will make a final recommendation to Congress and the White House. Officials called this an “extraordinarily aggressive” timetable to engineer the technology.

Several technological alternatives have been proposed to defend against missile attacks, including flares and infrared jamming systems, but officials declined to elaborate on which system is most likely to be developed for commercial use.

“There is no single solution to thwart the threat,” Mr. McQueary said.

The timing of the announcement, as the country remains on high alert for a terrorist attack, “does not reflect particular concern,” said Asa Hutchison, the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for border transportation security.

One option is a pyrotechnic flare that burns a chemical compound designed to emit infrared energy to deflect missiles away from aircraft. Close to the ground, however, these devices can ignite fires. The risk of missile attack to aircraft is highest during takeoff and landing, officials said.

Another option is a pyrophoric flare that does not burn so hot and more closely matches the signature of the missile.

Lasers can be mounted on planes to jam missile seekers, but all of these options “come with issues attached to them,” said Penrose Albright, assistant secretary of homeland security.

“The idea is to make the missile miss the aircraft. But the whole idea that we can just flip a switch … this is an extraordinarily difficult problem,” Mr. Albright said.

Officials said any estimated cost of equipping the 6,800 jets in the U.S. commercial fleet would be premature. Antimissile technology would include hardware, maintenance, training and ground-support costs.

One missile-jamming system, Directed InfraRed CounterMeasure, is cost-prohibitive at $5 billion to $10 billion a year to operate.

Asked if airlines will be forced to install the technology, Mr. Albright said, “We don’t have any facts right now and will spend the next two years getting facts. It’s the wrong thing to speculate what we might do in terms of regulation until we get the facts on the table.”

Some airline pilots have opposed additional security measures, including handguns.

Calls to airline associations yesterday to gauge reaction to the new technology, including the Airline Pilots Association, were not returned.

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