As the rush continues to equip U.S. commercial aircraft with anti-missile systems developed for the military, a broader perspective of the threat and how to deal with it is emerging. Given the cost and complexity of onboard anti-missile technology, these developments are appropriate, as I have noted in past comments in this space.
We reported in the May 2004 issue (page 24) that three development teams have been selected to design airliner missile defense systems. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) schedules would allow the completion of prototype demonstrations, tests and certification, at the earliest, by mid-2005—a remarkably short period of time for such a wide-ranging program. Congress has indicated that it wants the job done as expeditiously as possible.
There has been a flurry of activity in Washington to fully grasp the complexity of airliner missile defense. The Heritage Foundation, a local "think tank," recently coordinated panel discussions around that theme. Among the speakers, Ronald Robinson, Boeing's director of advanced programs and technology-commercial airplanes, gave his perspective, which I believe gives reason to pause and reconsider current anti-missile solutions.
First, Robinson told of reports indicating that 30 to 60 civilian aircraft may have been attacked by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS—largely shoulder-mounted, heat-seeking missiles) over the past 20 years. The reports reveal that only four to six of these incidents involved large commercial jets. In four incidents, where MANPADS involvement was confirmed, the airplanes landed successfully, with no fatalities. In the two incidents with fatalities, no evidence was found to confirm MANPADS involvement. He noted that commercial jets are "more robust" than smaller civilian aircraft and thus are better able to survive a missile attack .
Second, Robinson stated point-blank that directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCMs) "are incompatible" with commercial air transport operations. DIRCMs use lasers to jam a missile's IR seeker, a solution proposed by two of three competing missile defense teams. These systems are incompatible, says Robinson, because the acceptable failure rates for military operation are about 30 times more frequent than the 10,000 hours between failure required for viable commercial service; the acceptable false alarm rates for military operations could cause costly disruptions in commercial operations; and FAA's experience with these systems is limited to approving the wiring and other interfaces, not system operation. Admitting little expertise in the more combat-proven IR decoy solution (proposed by the third missile defense team), Robinson nevertheless cautioned that such devices must be proven effective, environmentally acceptable and safe.
But the main stumbling block to securing any missile defense is cost. Robinson claims that with current levels of directed IRCM reliability, the projected increase in the 20-year life-cycle cost per commercial aircraft would be about $1 million annually. With an aggressive reliability improvement program, that figure could potentially be reduced to $400,000," he adds. But with some 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. commercial fleet, that still equates to an extra $2.72 billion a year. And neither IR decoys nor lasers would protect against bombs, large rounds, and non-heat-seeking missiles.
Robinson emphasized the need to apply "systematic risk management" (SRM) to aircraft protection, a process in which industry and government jointly develop the greatest risk reduction with the limited resources available. He claims SRM "provides better results than evaluating individual initiatives." In adopting such a model for aviation security, Robinson envisions a multilayered approach that spans prevention, detection, response, and consequence management. This approach would adapt to changing threats and provide security personnel with broader situational awareness through networked systems, for rapid response to unforeseen events, he added.
As if in response to Robinson's comments, airports across the United States are conducting exercises designed to improve their defenses against MANPADS, according to a Washington Post report. "These exercises reflect a new push by government and aviation leaders to broaden their overall response to the [missile] threat," according to the report. "The focus is largely on our reaction to the threat and coordination" of various local agencies and property owners near the airport, said a Transportation Security Administration official.
These coordinated measures and Ronald Robinson's comments may not preclude the installation of missile defense systems on commercial aircraft. But they shed light on a broader perspective of the threat and possible solutions—and represent a pause for fresh thought.