Editor’s Note: No Overnight Missile Defense

By David Jensen | February 1, 2004
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The push to equip commercial aircraft with missile defense systems took a significant step forward in early January when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) selected three contractors out of 24 and awarded each one $2 million to develop aircraft missile-protection concepts. As we report in our Industry Scan section , that step represents the first phase of a two-phase program, the second calling for prototype development. Phase 1, determining whether the technologies now installed on military aircraft and the U.S. president's Air Force One B747s are applicable to air transport use, is scheduled to take six months. Phase 2, lasting up to 18 months, probably will be carried out by just two contractors following a down-select.

Over the two-year period, some $122 million is expected to be spent on the program. If, as proposed by a billed filed in Congress in February 2003, U.S. carriers are required to equip their fleets with missile defense systems, the estimated cost for this protection is $10 billion. An incident in November 2002, in which two shoulder-launched missiles were fired against an Israeli jetliner near Mombasa, Kenya, triggered the bill, designated S.311. Recent, similar incidents near Baghdad International Airport, involving a DHL A300 and U.S. Air Force C-17, have added urgency to the program–though it should be mentioned that neither the A300, C-17 nor the Israeli jetliner crashed.

Sponsors of S.311 believe two years is too long for a missile defense solution. "The threat is simply too severe to allow bureaucrats to set their own timetable to make use of those protections," says Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) who, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), sponsored S.311.

This begs the question: What should the timetable be for such a momentous undertaking? If a jetliner were to be tragically brought down by a heat-seeking missile today, then obviously, to many people, tomorrow would be an unacceptable deadline for a missile defense system's installation.

The threat is no doubt real. Although the intelligence community has no credible threat information in this area, estimates of 150,000 surface-to-air missiles in the world have been circulated. It's a fact that terrorist groups would love to obtain and use them against commercial aircraft. It's also true that the proposed anti-missile technologies are mature and installed in many military aircraft. Still, if issues involving performance, cost, crew training and maintainability are not first resolved, an anti-missile system on airliners could result in providing little protection–perhaps none.

In this space in the June 2003 issue I stated, "Fitting airliners with anti-missile systems is no simple matter–perhaps more complex than Sen. Boxer and Rep. Israel assume it will be." That viewpoint has been reinforced in my mind by comments that Assistant DHS Secretary for Science and Technology Penrose Albright made during an early January press conference.

Albright says the system's reliability is "a big issue," and DHS is seeking an anti-missile device that demonstrates at least 3,000 hours mean time between failures (MTBF). He adds that this low failure rate would have to be achieved without the constant, and costly, preflight maintenance afforded anti-missile systems on military aircraft. At least one contractor claims that its system does not require such persistent system monitoring. But it still will require additional maintenance.

Another issue, according to Albright, is "false positives" and the use of these systems in the proximity of civilian populations. A false positive, or false alarm, would be when the system activates against a threat that is not present–as opposed to a "false negative," in which the system fails to activate against a real inbound missile. One costly solution would be to install two protective systems per aircraft. Both systems would have to "agree" on the threat before activating. Dual systems could, of course, facilitate dispatch, should one system become inoperative–which brings up the minimum equipment list (MEL) issue.

These issues are on top of ones involving crew training, weight and drag penalties, and retrofit issues such as required electrical power, wiring, cooling, maintenance crew training, and certification. They also are heaped on the question of who should be equipped? Regional jets? Non-U.S. carriers entering the United States? And, at a time when air carriers are just beginning to emerge from financial red ink, there remains the critical question: Who pays for this system?

The DHS development program is supposed to resolve most issues over the two-year period. Although a missile attack by a terrorist group could occur sooner, it is difficult to envision a shorter timetable.

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