Media reports indicate that a helicopter carrying Senator John McCain--and other members of a Senate delegation--was fired on last week as it flew over the former Russian republic of Georgia. The missile apparently missed its target, although a second chopper, transporting the Georgian defense minister, was struck by ground fire and had to make an emergency landing. The attack was likely the work of South Ossetian separatists, who independence from both Georgia. Ossetian terrorists have used shoulder-fired SAMS on a number of occasions, with periodic success. Just yesterday, a Georgian Army helicopter was shot down over South Ossetia, killing everyone onboard.
These incidents provide a grim reminder of the threat posed by the global proliferation of shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles, often referred to MANPADS. These weapons have been in production since the late 1960s, and the number that remains unaccounted for is staggering--more than 100,000 MANPADS are missing, by one estimate. Many have found their way into the inventories of terrorists in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they've been employed frequently against our aircraft, with (thankfully) little effect.
A more disturbing possibility is that terrorists will eventually smuggle a MANPAD into the CONUS and use the weapon to shoot down a commercial jetliner. Our civil air fleet is currently defenseless against MANPAD attacks, although the FAA is studying the threat, and counter-measures systems are available. As we've noted before, the biggest obstacle to outfitting commercial jets with self-protection systems is the cost. For a single jetliner--say, a Boeing 717 or 737--installing a countermeasures system runs about $1 million. Multiply that by the number of passenger aircraft in this country (more than 6,000) and you'll see how expensive the retrofit would be.
But, on the other hand, what would be the economic impact of a single, successful MANPAD attack against a U.S. airliner? Some analysts believe it would produce an effect worse than 9-11, driving some carriers into bankruptcy. Considering that "alternative," $1 million a jet for a missile defense system sounds like a bargain, and it could be easily funded with a ticket surcharge, about $3 on a round-trip fare between New York and Los Angeles. As we've noted before, it's a small price to pay for a measure of security. Mr. McCain should consider the possibility that a future attack of this type might occur closer to home--say, on the Delta shuttle to New York--and sponsor meaningful legislation to protect commercial aviation (and its passengers) from this growing threat.