Tuesday, August 22, 2006

A Reminder

Kudos to Tim McLaughlin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for Monday's article on the continuing threat to commercial aviation from shouder-fired surface-to-air missiles. As Mr. McLaughlin reminds us, U.S. airlines are literally one missile attack away from a financial meltdown that could result in a $1 trillion hit to the American economy.

Despite that obvious threat, the U.S. government--and the airline industry--haven't committed to spending the billions of dollars needed to retrofit thousands of commercial aircraft and business jets with anti-missile systems. At upwards of one million dollars per airliner, it's a daunting proposition; but, amortized through ticket sales, the cost would add about $3 to a roundtrip ticket between New York and Los Angeles.

As we pointed out months ago, it's a small price to pay for a required measure of protection. One of the experts quoted by Tim McLaughlin compares terrorists to electricty--they take the path of least resistance. Given the ready availability of shoulder-fired SAMs (and the target rich environment offered by western airports), it's just a matter of time before Al Qaida quits tinkering with hair gel bombs, and moves on to something that's much more feasible--and deadly--like a MANPAD attack.


Scott said...

There was a story last week about a missle like UFO that appeared over the Kona airport on the Island of Hawaii. I only noticed because I'll be there soon. A practice run perhaps?

Andrew said...

The only feasible technology for commercial airliners is a DIRCM-type system which would probably provide decent protection agains the most common threats. However, these systems require maintenance and upkeep, plus their programming is classified. I think the costs would be substantial more than what you indicate. Then there are other things to consider such as what aircraft will get them? All commercial aircraft, those that carry a minimum number of passengers? If the system is non-operational, should that cancel the flight?

We don't have the funding to put the best DIRCM systems on our military aircraft - I think we'd be hard pressed to install and integrate them into the massive civilian fleet.

warhorse said...

Hmmm ... how serious a threat is this, really? I mean, MANPADS cannot reliably shoot down fighter aircraft, and airliners are much larger. Losing an engine on takeoff is a standard simulator drill for airline pilots, too, so it seems to me that this sort of situation ought to be pretty survivable, in theory. OTOH, I am not an expert by any means. Can anyone tell me why I might be wrong?


M. Murcek said...

One could always hope that the first shoulder fired missile incident in America involved Teresa Heinz Kerry's G5 (can't remember the stupid name of the thing) while JFK was on board, but she wasn't. She could go down in history as the first woman to lose two US senator husbands to air calamities, and it would be interesting to watch the left spin it. One could, of course, always hope there's no shoulder fired missile incident in America, ever..

Andrew said...


It could potentially be very serious. Commercial aircraft, when at altitudes vulnerable to these missiles, fly slow, straight, predictable flight paths. That makes targeting much easier. They are also much less maneuverable than military aircraft, and unlike military transport aircraft, they don't have people watching the rear of the aircraft checking for missile launches. So the flight profile of a civilian airliner makes it about as easy as possible for the MANPAD operator.

Survivability is another issue. MANPAD warheads are generally pretty small, but if they guide into an engine under a wing full of fuel, the effect could be catastrophic. If multiple missiles are used the chances of survival decrease dramatically. A lot would depend on where the missile tracked and hit. It would most likely track to an engine, so it would really depend on how badly the engine was damaged and if the wing fuel cells were punctured. The danger in that instance is loosing part of the wing, which is unrecoverable.

Hope that helps.

Mike said...

Also might add that airliner engines are not built nearly as sturdy or with as much redundancy as milspec engines.

In short, a MANPAD is much more likely to inflict catastrophic damage on an airliner engine than a milspec one, in addition to everything that Andrew said.