We've written extensively about the threat posed to U.S. airliners from man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS). Such weapons are lethal, widely available (tens of thousands are missing from military arsenals around the world), affordable (an older SA-7 can be purchased for under $10,000), and relatively easy-to-use. Can you imagine the impact of even one, successful MANPAD attack in the CONUS? Knocking down a single airliner would produce hundreds of casualties and produce economic shock waves that could well push one--or more--of our domestic carriers out of business.
To deal with the MANPAD threat, the Department of Homeland Security has been exploring the possible installation of self-defense systems on airliners. Such systems, as we've noted in the past, are now available, but their cost seems prohibitive, at least to our lawmakers. According to a recent article in Defense Week (subscription required), Congress believes it would be too expensive to install self-protection suites on most of our airliners, and has ordered DHS to examine other options. A study from defense contractor Raytheon indicates that it would cost $34 billion to outfit 4,000 U.S. airliners with missile defense systems, and keep them operating for two decades.
Not surprisingly, Raytheon is touting its ground-based defense sytem, nicknamed "Vigilant Eagle," as an alternative. Vigilant Eagle uses microwave signals to scramble MANPAD seekers, causing them to veer off-course. Raytheon estimates that the system could be installed at 33 of the nation's busiest airports and maintained for 20 years, at a pricetag of $1.6 billion.
Northrup-Grumman is also in the hunt, offering a version of its Skyguard missile defense system, which would use a high-powered laser to shoot down MANPADS aimed at airliners. Company spokesmen indicate that the cost for Skyguard is comparable to that of Vigilant Eagle. The Skyguard system is based on the Tactical High-Energy Laser (THEL) that Northrup-Grumman developed with the Israelis to shoot down incoming Katyusha rockets. The program was eventually terminated due to high costs, and the system's lack of mobility.
According to Defense Week's William Matthews, Northrup-Grumman and Raytheon have contracts to develop operational concepts for their ground-based systems, and demonstrate their viability in a crowded, airport environment. Overall, DHS has spent about $100 million on the MANPAD problem since 2003.
Unfortunately, we still don't have a lot to show for those expenditures. Tests have shown that on-board systems work, and the ground-based defenses hold great promise. But right now, no one--Congress or DHS--seems willing to commit to a course of action. Meanwhile, the MANPADS threat persists, and it's probably just a matter of time before a terrorist takes a pot shot at a U.S. airliner with a shoulder-fired, either at home or abroad. Given the lack of progress on MANPADS defenses for commercial aviation, we'd better hope the terrorist gunner is a lousy shot, or that he bought a defective missile from his local arms dealer.
P.S.--The incoming chair of the House Homeland Security Committee is Representative Bennie Thompson of Mississippi. Until now, Mr. Thompson has been better known for his ties to Jack Abramoff than his leadership on security issues.