Editor’s Note: Missile Defense on Airliners

By David Jensen | June 1, 2003
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Who would have thought it would come to this? First we have commercial airline pilots carrying guns. Now a bill in the U.S. Congress proposes that airliners be equipped with anti-missile systems. What’s next for air transport? Armor plating?

Since 9/11, a floodgate of preventive measures to counter air travel’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks has been released–and welcomed. However, a bill titled the "Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act" goes beyond high-tech baggage screening and locked cockpit doors, and thus requires scrutiny accompanied by skepticism.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) filed proposed bill S.311 in February, in reaction to an incident in November 2002 in which two shoulder-launched heat-seeking missiles were fired against a chartered Israeli jetliner taking off from an airport at Mombasa, Kenya. The missiles missed the aircraft, but struck a reactive nerve in Washington.

Proof of a serious threat, say the bill’s proponents, is the fact that thousands of Soviet-style SA-7 heat-seeking rockets, with at least a 3-mile (4.8-km) range, may be on the worldwide arms market. They also point to the effectiveness of the U.S.-built Stinger missiles that Afghanistan’s Mujahadeen fighters used in the 1980s.

The bill would have the Department of Transportation (DoT) purchase protective devices for more than 6,800 commercial airliners at a cost of $1 million-plus per aircraft, or a total of $7 billion to $10 billion. It would also require that all new airliners produced for operation in the United States have factory-installed anti-missile systems.

Sen. Boxer claims DoT’s acquisition of these systems "is a relatively small cost to address a very big threat." Taking no issue with the threat’s size, one still must question whether the cost is truly small, especially for the financially strapped U.S. carriers, who view any added expense as onerous, if not ruinous. For example, the bill says that while DoT buys the anti-missile systems, "an air carrier shall be responsible for installing and operating" them. There are other considerations, too.

Bill S.311 does not specify what type of anti-missile system should be installed. Various options exist, including chaff, decoy flares, infrared (IR) jammers and high-powered lasers. Regardless of the device, a system’s retrofit probably would require months of down time per aircraft. An aircraft retrofit no doubt would require rewiring, a larger electrical power supply, added cooling, and modifications to the aircraft structure and its avionics compartment.

And the costs don’t end with the installation. Anti-missile devices come with weight penalties–up to 500 pounds for IR jammers on an airliner–and penalties in aerodynamics, which impact fuel consumption. Airliners now have efficient, thin trailing edges. An anti-missile system, blunting those edges, would create drag and, thus, greater fuel burn. And this, combined with the weight penalty, means sacrificing revenue-generating seats.

One would assume that either IR jammers or a laser, such as the one developed for the U.S. Air Force’s Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures program, would be the defense of choice for commercial aircraft. The thought of looking out an aircraft window and seeing an explosive charge to dispense decoy flares probably would have already worried travelers running to other means of transportation or staying home.

With or without explosives, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification of missile defense systems would surely require a whole new regulatory infrastructure. Certification probably would have to be a collaborative effort, with the Defense Department certifying the anti-missile system’s effectiveness and FAA approving its installation and operation from a safety point of view.

Fitting airliners with anti-missile systems is no simple matter–perhaps more complex than Sen. Boxer and Rep. Israel assume it will be. The seriousness of the threat and complexity of the solution no doubt is why industry associations take a cautious stance on proposed bill S.311. The Air Transport Association (ATA) declares benignly that the airline industry "is doing everything within its power to assist the government in its decision-making [regarding] all terrorist threats."

Revealing more skepticism than ATA, Air Line Pilots Association spokesman John Mazor points out that commercial aircraft are meant to continue flying after losing an engine–even, presumably, from a missile attack–and that heat-seeking missiles represent "a quantum leap from the box cutters used during 9/11." Nevertheless, he adds that ALPA’s "current thinking is to weigh the factors."

One is reluctant to dismiss a threat only to be proven tragically wrong later. And, undoubtedly, if missiles are available, terrorists will want to obtain them. However, one can’t help but wonder whether there are better ways to spend up to $10 billion for improved air travel safety and security.

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