Missile Defense for Airliners Finds Growing Support in United States

Four companies have systems that are candidates for deployment

IMAGES: NORTHROP GRUMMAN

The Northrop Grumman Directional Infrared Countermeasures system [left], like similar systems developed by other companies, detects the launch of a heat-seeking missile and automatically directs a laser beam to confuse its electronics.

Less than a year following a near-catastrophic terrorist missile attack on a packed Israeli commercial airliner, the U.S. government has taken concrete steps to provide high-tech protection to U.S. passenger jets. The Department of Homeland Security (Washington, D.C.) has unveiled plans to determine the feasibility of deploying antimissile technology on commercial passenger aircraft. A leading technology is a directed-laser device, adapted from the military, that blinds heat-seeking missiles.

Last November, a chartered Israeli commercial jet taking off at Mombasa Airport in Kenya, bound for Tel Aviv, narrowly escaped destruction when two shoulder-launched missiles that were fired at it missed. Following high-level meetings with government security officials and airline management, on 22 May the Department of Homeland Security issued a report announcing plans to develop antimissile protection technology for U.S. commercial passenger aircraft. Contracts for the antimissile systems are to be awarded in early 2004, with live-fire testing the following year.

According to the plan, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (Washington, D.C.) could certify a system in fiscal 2005, and its installation on the 6700 planes owned by U.S. airlines could begin that year. On 12 June, a U.S. House appropriations subcommittee approved a homeland security funding bill, which, among other things, specifies US $60 million for R&D on antimissile devices for commercial aircraft.

Assessing the threat

Shoulder-launched missiles, or MANPADS—man-portable air-defense systems—have been a military staple for decades. The United States gave more than 900 such missiles, Stingers specifically, to Afghan rebels, who used them with deadly success against the occupying Soviet army from 1979 to 1988. Leftover Stinger missiles were discovered in Taliban caves during the U.S. Afghan campaign in 2001.

MANPADS are manufactured around the world and cost between $20 000 and $70 000 per system. By some estimates, more than 500 000 shoulder-fired missile systems now exist, and it only takes one bought on the black market to severely damage or even bring down a plane. They are easily transportable, designed to be set up and fired by two people with minimal training, and have a range of about 5 km.

Modern military aircraft have for years had antimissile defenses largely relying on decoys—such as flares fired from the aircraft—to distract or confuse attacking heat-seeking missiles. But one of the newest technologies uses compact, diode-pumped, solid-state lasers to ward off missiles. In its most recent incarnation, dubbed DIRCM, for Directional Infrared Countermeasures, the system consists of a double-gimbaled turret that automatically detects the launch of a missile and then aims a laser beam at it to disrupt the missile’s heat-tracking sensor system, effectively blinding it [see photographs].

DIRCM systems, weighing a bit over 40 kg, need no manual intervention—they automatically detect and fend off an attack in seconds, notifying the crew afterward. They have recently been installed on the U.S. Special Operations forces’ fleet of MC-130E/H Combat Talons and AC-130U gunships, whose missions often carry them deep into hostile territory.

Competing DIRCM systems are currently being made by BAE Systems PLC (Farnborough, UK), Northrop Grumman Corp. (Los Angeles), and, in Israel, by Rafael Armament Development Authority Ltd. and Elta Electronics Industries Ltd. (in Haifa and Ashdod, respectively). The Department of Homeland Security could select military DIRCMs adapted for civilian aircraft. They would need to fit a wider range of planes and would have different maintenance schedules, but they may not need to be as durable as battlefield gear.

In February 2002, months before release of the Homeland Security report described above, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) cosponsored a bill calling for federal funding to retrofit commercial aircraft with antimissile devices at an estimated per-plane cost of $1 million to $2 million.

The bill would require the airlines to pay for antimissile technology on new planes they purchase and, according to Representative Israel’s office, is ”gaining support,” thanks to Department of Homeland Security briefings with influential Capitol Hill lawmakers.

Security analysts warn that even the most advanced antimissile technology will not protect aircraft against all attacks. If all commercial aircraft were equipped with the DIRCM technology, they would still be vulnerable to low-tech and cheaper weaponry, particularly during landing or takeoff. Relatively ”dumb” rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs)—essentially large, explosive bullets—have no homing systems to be defeated but can be as lethal as their guided cousins.

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