The effort to adapt military technology to commercial aviation in order to protect U.S. airliners from shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles is poised to enter its third and final phase (see story). Contracts were being finalized as this issue went to press. At this turning point, it makes sense to pause and reflect on the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS') approach and where the agency will go from here.
The Counter-MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) program is unusual. Some in Congress are enthusiastic. In fact, supporters on Capitol Hill recently wrote to the chairman of the relevant House Appropriations subcommittee, requesting a $30-million increase in FY07 funding. But the cash-strapped carriers are anything but pleased. They look at the extra weight and drag, and the potential for vastly increased maintenance costs, if the directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) systems being refined under the program should be mandated.
The threat is real. Approximately 38 attacks on civilian aircraft have been attributed to MANPADS in the last three decades. In the past four years a cargo carrier was hit and an airliner had a close call. But basic questions remain about the cost, reliability and adaptability of the technology.
Rand Corp. last year estimated that a successful MANPADS attack could lead to $15 billion in losses. It also forecast the equipment's 10-year life-cycle cost to be $40 billion--down to $25 billion if reliability goals can be achieved. The penalty could perhaps be lessened if the airlines had 10 days to repair the gear, as most aircraft would be back in the U.S. from international destinations within that period. This approach is under discussion.
Aviation is caught in a dilemma. Yes, MANPADS are a serious threat. And, says DHS, they are more widely proliferated than other man-portable weapons among terrorist networks. But MANPADS are not the only threat. DIRCMs don't protect against laser-guided missiles, rocket-propelled grenades or heavy-caliber rifles. Thus the Air Transport Association (ATA), the U.S. airline trade group, recommends more careful consideration about how to spend limited resources. "From what we've seen, DIRCM technology appears to be very expensive, of unproven reliability and not readily adaptable to a commercial environment," says John Meenan, ATA's executive vice president. "They deal with only one very narrow aspect of a much wider threat, and at a very high cost."
As ATA points out, the aviation community is experienced with systematic risk management, an analytical approach that, over the past decade, has resulted in improved safety for the investments made. This methodology could be applied to security as well as safety issues. ATA recommends, among other things, greater emphasis on removing MANPADS from circulation, improved surveillance around airports and focus upon better intelligence and law enforcement. In other words, smarter spending can be effective against a wider array of threats.
Phase 3 of the DHS program is designed to address some of the questions ATA raises, as well as issues like technology protection, false alarms and emergency ground notification. Flight tests are to begin next year. That's when the systems will be carried on board in-service cargo aircraft to test reliability and suitability in commercial operations. The idea is to let airlines fly the systems, collect data and deal with maintenance issues without handholding by the manufacturers.
The challenge is substantial. In military use the DIRCM systems average about 300 hours between failures, something the services have the manpower to support. The airlines, however, expect 10,000 hours before replacement. The government's compromise is 3,000 hours.
Nobody in the airline community is privy to the intelligence data behind the government's decisions. If, upon a thorough study of all the facts, the government decides to require DIRCM technology, that is their prerogative. But before they take such a step, it is prudent to consider ATA's recommendation and examine the problem more fully.