Airliner Missile Defense: At What Cost?

By Charlotte Adams | May 1, 2004
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The November 2002 attack on an Israeli airliner, though unsuccessful, brought home to the U.S. Congress the possibility of a grave new threat to commercial aviation: shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles. About three-quarters of a million of these covert and inexpensive weapons may exist worldwide, many of them unaccounted for. Their range can exceed 4 miles, altitude 10,000 feet and speed Mach 2. Time to target can be under 5 seconds.

The firing of two missiles at Israel's Arkia Airlines' Boeing jetliner on climbout from Mombasa, Kenya, was the first such attack on a commercial aircraft outside of a combat zone. The attack last November on a DHL Airbus 300 aircraft in Baghdad underscores the need for protection, if not for the entire U.S. fleet, at least for commercial aircraft operated by the military in hostile areas.

From the beginning, the question has been cost. Estimates for equipping the U.S. civilian fleet range as high as $20 billion. But long-term direct and indirect operating and support (O&S) costs—which the carriers currently are expected to cover—could dwarf that figure, especially if military systems are bolted on without regard to commercial operating and maintenance environments. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in its November 2003 Counter-MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) program solicitation described life-cycle cost minimization as "one of the highest-priority goals."

Based on DHS schedules, however, the prototype demos, tests and certifications won't be completed until at least mid-2005. As this story went to press, a bill reflecting congressional discontent with these time lines was introduced in the House. HR 4056 directs the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), within 30 days of enactment, to establish a streamlined process for certifying the airworthiness and safety of the new protective systems. Further reporting is required at six-month intervals. FAA is not to assess system effectiveness, says a House staffer, because this would duplicate DHS efforts. DHS, meanwhile, has told Congress that its own time lines are as expedited as possible.

Three Development Teams

The need to keep plans rooted in operational reality prompted United Airlines to participate. "If this technology is going to be made mandatory for commercial airliners, we felt we should be involved from the start," says Jeff Green, United spokesman. "The things that are important to us obviously are going to be cost, the weight of the equipment, the safety of the equipment, and maintainability." DHS in January selected the following three teams to analyze the economic, manufacturing and maintenance issues of adapting military countermeasures to airliners and to provide detailed designs:

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