Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A Measure of Protection, Redux

An El Al Boeing 777-200 jetliner (Wikepedia).

About eighteen months ago, we noted that El Al, Israel's state-owned airline, had installed missile protection systems on all of its aircraft. The decision followed an unsuccessful attack on an Israeli charter jet taking off from Mobassa, Kenya in 2002. In that incident, Al Qaida-linked terrorists launched a shoulder-fired, SA-7 "Grail" at the 757, which missed its target. The attack on the Israeli jet is cited as the first against a civilian airliner operating outside a war zone, and was a major factor in El Al's plan to protect its fleet.

As the man-portable (MANPAD) surface-to-air missile threat persists, Israel is now taking additional steps to safeguard civilian aircraft. The Jerusalem Post is reporting that Israel's security cabinet has approved a new, Israeli-made defensive system for protecting commercial aircraft against missile attacks. Development of the system will begin next year. According to the Post, the research effort will also include technology that will make it more difficult for hijacked or unidentified aircraft to penetrate Israeli airspace.

As with many announcements from Israeli government, this one is deliberately vague. Reading between the lines, it appears the Israelis will install a more advanced missile defense system on civilian aircraft in the near future. Additionally, the government is also allocating money to "fortify" jetliners with existing technology, already found on Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft. That indicates that all of Israel's civilian aircraft will receive missile protection gear over the near term, giving them the self-defense capability already found on El Al jetliners. The more advanced missile defense system will eventually be retrofitted on Israel's commercial fleet, once development and testing is complete.

The decision to put defensive suites on more jetliners was apparently prompted by terror groups' plans to target Israeli aircraft, and the availability of more advanced MANPADS. Existing self-defense systems are designed primarily for older, first and second-generation missiles, like the Russian-designed SA-7 and SA-14. Most of the self-protection suites utilize sensors that detect a missile launch, then direct a burst of laser energy to confuse or blind the MANPAD seeker.

However, some of the existing systems are less effective against more advanced shoulder-fired SAMs, notably the Russian SA-18 and the American.-made STINGER. While export of the latest versions of the STINGER have been strictly controlled by the U.S. government, the SA-18 is believed to be widely available on the world arms market, and some of the missiles could be in the hand of terrorist organizations. With longer range, better maneuverability and the ability to defeat some defensive systems, the threat posed by the SA-18 (and other, newer MANPADS) clearly influenced the Israeli decision.

While Israel's commercial aviation fleet is only a fraction of the United States, the expanded defensive effort won't be cheap. Outfitting El Al's 29 jetliners reportedly cost at least $1.1 million per aircraft, and installing missile defense systems on other commercial aircraft will be equally expensive. Additional funding will be required for outfitting those aircraft with the more advanced defensive suite, which enters development in 2008. Apparently, the Israelis believe it's money well-spent, given the potential economic and psychological impact of losing a civilian airliner to a terrorist MANPAD.

Meanwhile, the effort to provide a similar level of protection to U.S. jetliners is inching forward. The Department of Homeland Security is evaluating prototype systems developed by British Aerospace (BAE) and Northrup Grumman, but so far, that equipment has not met reliability standards mandated by DHS. Incidentally, there is no indication that the Israeli systems are better than those being tested in the United States, but Tel Aviv decided the threat warrants an immediate deployment, instead of waiting for more reliable equipment.

Results of the DHS evaulation will be briefed to Congress in 2008, and the Associated Press reported last year that it could take two decades to outfit all U.S. passenger aircraft with a self-defense system. That's assuming, of course, that lawmakers, the airlines and aircraft maufacturers can agree on a system, and find a way to pay for the installation. By one estimate, it could cost $5 billion to install missile defense suites on aircraft operated by the "mainline" carriers. Outfitting passenger aircraft for smaller airlines and charter carriers would be even more expensive.

Still, that cost could be underwritten with a slight surcharge on tickets--about $1 on an existing New York to Los Angeles flight. As Aviation Week has noted, that tax would be enough to fund not only the equipment and its installation, it would also pay for the extra fuel burned by the increased weight/drag of the missile defense system.

From our perspective, it's a small price to pay for defending the flying public against a growing threat. Unfortunately, the leisurely pace of our development and evaluation efforts means it will be years before passengers on U.S. carriers have the same level of protection afforded to those flying El Al, or other Israeli airlines. Unlike DHS, the Israelis understand that the MANPAD threat to airliners can't wait for a better or more cost effective system. We can only pray that our bureaucrats--and airline passengers--don't have to learn that lesson the hard way.

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