ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

The Complexities of Civil CounterMANPADS

By Adrian Gerold | April 1, 2005
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At a recent aviation security conference, exhibitors displayed a wide range of new technologies aimed at preventing weapons and explosives from being taken or placed aboard civil aircraft. From air-sampling and X-ray, walk-through portals to automated 3D scanners for checked and hand-carried baggage, it was clear that the threat of attacks on board civil aircraft is rapidly being mitigated. Yet paradoxically, the reduction of onboard threats may increase the probability of a different menace. As one airline attendee put it, "All this equipment is excellent, yet what concerns me is that it could simply shift the terrorists’ strategy towards anti-aircraft missiles." These often are referred to as man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

This was no idle thought. While careful not to raise undue alarm, conference speakers from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other U.S. and overseas security agencies made it clear that while terrorist missile attacks on aircraft have so far occurred in and around distant conflict zones (notably, Baghdad and Mombasa, Kenya), the possibility of such attacks in the United States or other industrialized nations no longer can be ignored.

The immediate response in the United States, Israel and other nations to those incidents was to look at onboard anti-missile systems already in widespread use on military aircraft. Over the past two years this equipment has been quietly installed in several overseas head-of-state aircraft and some U.S. and foreign corporate aircraft. And under congressional direction, DHS in 2003 launched a two-phase, two-year project to first evaluate and then develop an onboard anti-missile system that could be acceptable to operators of the nation’s 6,500 civil jet transports.

"Acceptable" is the key word, particularly regarding the anti-missile system’s cost. Acquiring and installing these systems in civil registered aircraft comes with a hefty price tag, plus special airworthiness approvals, security procedures and demanding maintenance and logistics challenges. To cite just one challenge to the scheme: military anti-missile systems typically require removal and major testing after just 300 flying hours–an impossible requirement for an airline with an extensive network.

Two Assessments

A January 2005 Rand Corp. assessment was conducted to weigh the practicality of current civil counter-MANPADS systems. It judged that equipping today’s U.S. airline fleet should be postponed: Present technology cannot defeat newer or future advanced missile guidance techniques, and the cost of such a program would outweigh its benefits. Rand researchers estimate that fleetwide installation would cost $1.1 billion, plus 10-year life cycle costs of $27 billion, an amount representing nearly 50 percent of current U.S. expenditure for all transportation security. Against this they estimate that the loss of one aircraft and its passengers would approach $1 billion, plus collateral short- and long-term economic damage to the industry of $15 billion, using a comparison with the aftermath of 9/11.

The Rand assessment further stated that the country "would be willing to pay $12 billion to avoid an incident that would seriously affect travelers’ confidence for the next six months." Rand researchers propose that a decision to proceed with current counter-MANPADS equipage should only proceed in concert with "a broader set of initiatives aimed at striking and capturing terrorists abroad, impeding their acquisition of missiles, and preventing them and their weapons from entering the United States."

Efforts have begun to broaden the missile protection effort. "We’re trying to get nations to monitor their MANPADS inventory," says James Tuttle, DHS’ program manager-counter MANPADS, at an Air Traffic Control Association (ATCA) conference covering post-9/11 security against terrorism. "Also, [the U.S. government] has a buy-back program in which we buy MANPADS that are on the black market." In addition, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is "testing airport vulnerability" to a MANPADS attack, Tuttle adds.

The Rand report also made the rather obvious suggestion that "attention should be paid to keeping MANPADS-equipped terrorists out of areas adjacent to airports and improving commercial airliners’ ability to survive fire-induced MANPADS damage." In the latter area, the researchers proposed studies of the likelihood of catastrophic damage to airliners, together with investigation of fuel tank inerting systems.

Endorsing some of Rand’s broader cautions, the Air Transport Association (ATA) has offered its own assessment of both the costs associated with anti-missile systems and the relative threat risk. ATA’s primary concern, understandably, is the economic impact of counter-MANPADS equipage on an industry already in severe financial difficulty. But, in a January 2005 statement, while acknowledging the "extremely serious" threat of MANPADS attacks, the association emphasized that this should be part of a systematic risk management program that assesses and prioritizes all threats against both the nation and its aviation industry. The lack of such a coherent effort, ATA states, "…is resulting in a significant distortion of resources and focus."

Even more strongly, ATA contends that "…a decision to push forward with the development and even initial deployment of counter-MANPADS technology systems is being promoted largely at the instigation of the vendor community without an adequate information base." This, ATA believes, risks misdirecting resources needed for other, high-priority threats.

The association also questions the installation strategy. Was it to include all civil aircraft or just those assigned to the Civil Reserve Air Fleet or perhaps just widebodies traveling to certain destinations, or would it exclude larger aircraft better able to withstand a MANPADS strike? Yet less than full fleet deployment would inevitably direct terrorist actions against non-equipped aircraft, ATA points out.

ATA questions, as well, the anti-missile program’s costs and performance assurances, and added a key comment: "The defense of our aviation system must be a national defense priority and one fully supported by general tax dollars. Any suggestion that the industry or its customers can sustain these costs is misplaced."

Numerous other viewpoints surround this issue. There would appear to be no easy answer to countering the missile threat. Yet a closer look reveals that the threat is quite real.

Shoulder-mounted, heat-seeking missiles are relatively lightweight anti-aircraft weapons that were developed towards the end of the Cold War and were manufactured in very large quantities by both the United States and former Soviet Union. Currently, it is estimated that well more than 500,000 MANPADS have been, and are still being, produced by over 35 countries, some friendly and others not. That’s already bad news, but even worse is that more than 10,000 of these weapons are unaccounted for, with most reported to be in the hands of more than a dozen different terrorist groups, including al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

On the armaments black market, these systems are said to sell for between $3,000 and $80,000, depending on age and make, with, ironically, the top price being paid for the U.S.-built Stinger missile. The United States supplied large numbers of Stingers to Afghanistan mujahedeen fighters in the late 1980s to attack–with deadly effect–the Russian helicopters supporting the then-communist regime in that country.

MANPADS are deceptively simple weapons. But as former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Asia Pacific economic ministers in November 2003, "No threat is more serious to aviation." The missile launcher is basically a simple steel tube, roughly 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 m) long and 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter. The missile, of approximately equal length, is inserted into this tube. Most of the missile’s interior is taken up by rocket propellant, which gives it a velocity of about Mach 2.2, or close to 1,700 miles per hour at sea level and, depending on model, a range of 3 to 4 miles (4.8 to 6.4 km) and a peak altitude of up to 12,000 feet. The head of the missile contains a relatively small, 2- to 4-pound (0.9- to 1.9-kg), explosive charge that is detonated by impact or, in later versions, by the target’s proximity.

But the key to the missile’s fearsome reputation lies in its nose-mounted infrared (IR) heat-seeking sensor. It directs the missile’s tail fins to steer it towards the exhaust plume from a jet or turboprop engine, where even its small explosive power can create catastrophic damage.

The attacks of 9/11 showed that terrorism is no longer restricted to unstable parts of the world, and two events demonstrated to the newly formed DHS that protecting civil aircraft against missile attacks is no longer an abstract concept. In November 2002 an Israeli Boeing 757 filled with vacationers narrowly missed being struck by two Russian-built MANPADS missiles as it departed Mombasa, Kenya, for Tel Aviv. One year later a single Russian missile hit a DHL Airbus A300 freighter on departure from Baghdad, causing a wing fuel tank fire and totally disabling the flight controls. Fortunately, through a remarkable feat of airmanship, the crewmen were able to maneuver by using differential engine power and got back to the ground safely.

But the message was clear: the near success of those attacks meant that civil aircraft were likely to become terrorist targets in the future. This, in turn, induced the U.S. Congress to pressure DHS to seek an anti-missile system for civil aircraft.

DHS’ request for proposals drew responses from 27 organizations, but by January 2004, the counter-MANPADS proposals had been whittled down to three teams headed by United Airlines, Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems. Following completion in July 2004 of the six-month preliminary design phase, DHS selected the Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems teams to continue into the 18-month second phase. By January 2006 each team is expected to have developed and built two prototype systems for test and qualification under separate $45-million contracts.

Northrop Grumman’s team includes Northwest Airlines and Federal Express, while BAE Systems is teamed with American Airlines and Delta Airlines’ TechOps group, plus Honeywell and systems integrator Sargent Fletche Inc. Both primes have extensive military backgrounds in missile countermeasures for U.S. and allied forces. According to a DHS official, both teams will be installing their counter-MANPADS systems on aircraft this summer. The BAE system will be on a B767, and the Northrop system will be fitted to an MD-11 and a B757, according to the DHS official. And both teams are pursuing supplemental type certificates (STCs) for their systems.

Interestingly, FAA’s main participation in the second phase essentially will be to assure that airworthiness and flight safety are not compromised and that any installed equipment does not interfere with the onboard systems. Other issues under evaluation will be the systems’ reliability and safeguards against false alerts, the ability to alert air traffic controllers of an incident, and the protection of proprietary, counter-MANPADS technology. Testing and other qualifications will be the responsibility of DHS, undoubtedly with Department of Defense assistance. DHS currently is seeking $100 million from the U.S. Congress in fiscal year 2006 to launch phase 3, which would have 20 air cargo aircraft equipped with counter-MANPADS systems for operational evaluation. The systems would come from both competitors.

FAA was, however, influential in the overall selection process and raised concerns about United team member Avisys Inc.’s plan to complement its ultraviolet missile acquisition and tracking sensors with a pulsed Doppler radar. The agency felt the radar could potentially interfere with DME, satcom and other systems. FAA allowed that Doppler radar could be approved for domestic U.S. operations although with some concern about its use in high traffic density areas. But obtaining full overseas approval would have been doubtful within the 18-month development period.

FAA also had safety concerns about Avisys’ proposed use of flare decoys, even though these were newer "covert" devices, rather than the more familiar military pyrotechnics. Both Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems selected ultraviolet sensors to detect and track the exhaust plumes of incoming missiles and chose high-intensity laser beams to blind the missile’s IR seeker. (The laser beams are projected from rotating, softball-sized "turrets" protruding below the aircraft.) Both teams have developed comparable counter-MANPADS systems. They both comprise a missile warning sensor and a pointer/tracker that directs the laser beam to the oncoming missile’s seeker. The primary difference between the two systems is that BAE disperses the system’s elements to different parts of the aircraft, while Northrop Grumman has consolidated the elements into a single pod–which, the company argues, will make the system’s maintenance simpler.

But all three teams stated that their offerings would meet DHS civil system requirements, many of which were challenging. For example, DHS called for the following:

  • System reliability–roughly equivalent to mean time between scheduled overhauls–to be not less than 3,000 hours but with a target of 4,500 hours to coincide with airline major checks,

  • A total weight of less than 800 pounds (363 kg) but with a target of 500 pounds (227 kg),

  • A publicly unspecified successful missile intercept level, believed to be more than 90 percent,

  • An unspecified but extremely low false alarm rate,

  • An initial installation time of 10 days, with a goal of four days, and

  • The aerodynamic drag of any external pods, blisters and turrets not to exceed 1 percent of that of an uninstalled aircraft equal to or larger than the Airbus A319.

Affordability? Practicality?

DHS had one final requirement: Assuming that well over 1,000 systems will be built, the amortized purchase price of the 1,000th system, uninstalled, should not exceed $1 million. For many airlines, this represents the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. In statements to the U.S. Congress, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other authorities, the air transport industry protested that this costly system would be simply unaffordable for air carriers, several of which are verging on bankruptcy. Objections also have been raised about the possibility of an equipment mandate on all airlines, including U.S. domestic operators. And concern has been voiced that current missile countermeasures concepts could be short-lived and rendered obsolete by the next generation of missile technology.

Industry officials stress, moreover, that it was the responsibility of individual nations, and not the air carriers, to assure the safety of air commerce over their territories. The U.S. Congress does not appear to be swayed by these arguments. And world aviation officials attending the November 2004 ICAO Assembly in Montreal took no further action, other than to agree to study the issue.

Yet for individual nations, the task of assuring protection from missile attacks would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Given the MANPADS’ operating range and altitude envelope (4 miles/12,000 feet), the area within which a landing or departing aircraft would be vulnerable to attack could be a rectangle of 25 miles (40 km) in length and at least 5 miles (8 km) in width, from either end of each available runway. Indeed, a multirunway airport could have a circular vulnerability zone of 25 miles in diameter, usually encompassing large built-up areas, within which the authorities would have to locate and apprehend a terrorist with an easily concealed MANPADS launcher. This challenge would be infinitely worse than the proverbial needle in a haystack.

The difficult question of risk also exists. That is, what is the probability of being attacked, and what is the probability that an attack will be successful?

While the probable risk of an attack varies with location–and the United States would appear safer than elsewhere–some security experts feel that a small number of missiles could already be in the country and that just one successful attack could devastate the entire industry. On the probability of success, it is felt that the Mombasa attack failed due to the combination of poorly trained individuals prematurely firing unreliable missiles of early design. Little is known about the DHL A300 attack, although the fact that the missile struck the wing and not an engine also suggests an early, less reliable IR target seeker, since the aircraft was unprotected.

But later-generation missiles are far more capable. And while the Rand study of terrorist threats to the Los Angeles International Airport optimistically assumed that "a properly aimed and launched MANPADS attack…will result in destruction of an airliner less than 10 percent of the time," a military expert told Avionics Magazine that current missiles, when "properly aimed and launched," would down an unprotected airliner "far above 50 percent of the time." The expert added that a military "wouldn’t buy anything with a 10 percent kill probability."

A Matter of Time

However, assuming that the DHS project’s test and qualification phase is complete by January 2006, it is not clear when series production would commence, when systems would become available and in what quantities. DHS has stated a requirement to build 600 systems per year, but some industry observers feel such a production rate is unrealistically high. Conversely, others, including many in the U.S. Congress, feel that taking 11 years to meet the needs of today’s more than 6,500 U.S. airline and freighter aircraft is unacceptably long.

It therefore seems likely that DHS, FAA and related authorities will be forced to greatly accelerate the production rate while also accommodating operators who, not unreasonably, feel the urgency for missile protection. For the latter group the only recourse is to install currently available, lower-cost systems from companies like former United Airlines team member Avisys, Austin, Texas, and Aviation Protection Systems Inc., Miami, which has civil sales rights to the Flight Guard device built by ELTA Systems of Israel.

Another Israeli company, Elisra, offers its Lorica missile detection and tracking system. These and several other companies have produced substantial quantities of military anti-MANPADS equipment. Some of them reportedly have held discussions with FAA to resolve the agency’s concerns about issues such as Doppler radar interference and flare safety. For the former issue, a frequency change has been shown as effective, while for the latter, newer flare technologies have greatly reduced the risk of accidents.

Some authorities feel that it is now more a question of when a missile will bring down an airliner, not if. Says former U.S. Secretary of State, Powell, "We should pray that, should a missile attack be launched, the targeted aircraft will be equipped to defend itself."

A Case for Equipage

Is the installation of anti-missile systems on commercial aircraft cost- prohibitive? Not according to the Washington-based think tank, the Cato Institute, as revealed in a report by its director of defense policy studies, Charles Pena. He believes that to not install the system would be economically shortsighted and morally irresponsible. In the report Pena makes the following comments:

"To be sure, $11 billion [to install anti-missile systems on airliners] is a lot of money. But it’s less than one-half of 1 percent of the $2.4-trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2005 and less than 3 percent of the Defense Department’s $400-plus billion budget. Surely there must be a way to find a spare $11 billion to address a crucial security need.

"The economic impact [of a missile attack that downs an airliner] would not be slight. Rand Corp. estimated that a single successful missile attack against a commercial airliner could inflict economic losses from $1.4 billion, if there was a total shutdown of airline traffic for just one day, to $70.7 billion if the shutdown stretched out to a month.

"The scary reality is that ground security to defend against MANPADS is nearly impossible. These relatively light and portable systems have a range of several miles, which would require policing an area of several hundred square miles around many airports.

"At least 500,000 such systems have been produced worldwide. And at least 17 terrorist organizations (including al Qaeda) are believed to possess Soviet SA-7 missiles–the same missile that was used in [Mombasa] Kenya, in November 2002. And it’s not just the SA-7 that’s a concern. The American Stinger missile is also thought to be in the hands of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

"There is also a well-documented history of using MANPADS against civilian aircraft. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, since the 1970s, at least 42 aircraft have been attacked by MANPADS. Twenty-nine of them went down. According to the FBI, 550 people were killed as a result of those attacks.

"The paramount responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the common defense. In the post-9/11 world, that means defending against terrorist attacks. While it’s impossible to defend against every potential line of attack, the government would be shirking its duty if it couldn’t find $11 billion to protect commercial airliners against such a serious threat."

For more on the Cato Institute, visit

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