If you plan to fly American Airlines between New York's JFK Airport and Los Angeles or San Francisco in the coming months, take a look at the aircraft before you get on board. Mounted on the belly of the plane, between the main landing gear, you may see a small turret. That device is part of a prototype missile defense system, mounted on three AA Boeing 767s as part of test by the Department of Homeland Security.
For several months, the three jets will carry the self-defense gear on cross-country flights, to determine how much extra drag (and fuel consumption) is created by the system, and how much it costs to maintain it. DHS will use the data to evaluate the feasibility of placing missile defense systems on most of the nation's commercial aircraft.
As we've noted before, there is a growing threat to the world's airliners from shoulder-fired, man-portable surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs). Al Qaida-linked terrorists tried (unsuccessfully) to shoot down an Israeli 757 near Mombassa, Kenya in 2002, an attack that prompted Tel Aviv to install self-protection systems on all of its airliners. At roughly one million dollars per aircraft, the defensive gear isn't cheap, but it provides a measure of protection that the Israelis deem necessary.
And despite various non-proliferation attempts, the MANPAD threat continues to grow. Defense analysts estimate that as many as 100,000 shoulder-fired SAMs are unaccounted for, and can be readily purchased on the global arms market. Many of the weapons are early-generation SA-7/14s (and various clones), based on old Soviet designs. However, some newer MANPADs are also available, including U.S.-made Stingers that were given to Afghan mujahedin and modern SA-18s, purchased by Saddam Hussein. In working order, any of these systems could bring down an airliner during takeoff or landing.
In recognition of the MANPAD threat, virtually all U.S. military aircraft are equipped with some sort of defensive suite. But extending that protection to commercial jets has been more problematic. By one estimate, it would take up to 20 years (and $5 billion) to outfit most of the nation's airliners and commercial cargo aircraft. Beyond that, there are questions about who would pay for routine maintenance, system upgrades and increased fuel costs created by the added weight of the defensive suite.
American Airlines spokesman John Hotard told USA Today that his company agreed to participate in the upcoming test "in case Congress eventually requires airlines to install the devices." However, he noted that AA is "philosophically opposed" to anti-missile technology on commercial planes. "When you look at the cost benefit, it would be an extremely expensive proposition, and in the end, is it really going to work?"
Here's a question for Mr. Hotard: what if it does work? The technology--which links detection sensors to a rotating laser that "fries" the missile's seeker--is proven; it has saved the lives of countless airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan. On a commercial jetliner, self-defense gear would save hundreds of passengers, and prevent an economic disaster for the airline industry.
Critics note that there has never been a missile attack against an airliner in this country. But obviously, a lot of U.S. jets also operate on overseas routes (where the threat is often higher), and the MANPAD threat will almost certainly migrate to the CONUS at some point. There are simply too many shoulder-fired SAMs on the market, and the price is certainly right; older missiles and launchers can sometimes be acquired for only a few hundred dollars. Top-of-the line MANPADs are available for less than $100,000--a relative bargain, considering the carnage and long-term economic damage they could potentially create.
The upcoming DHS test is certainly a step in the right direction, but the "philosophical opposition" of American (and other carriers) is troubling. Last year, Aviation Week analyzed the potential costs of installing missile defense systems on U.S. airliners and discovered the entire bill--including installation, operating costs and the extra fuel--could be covered by a $1 surcharge on a transcontinental flight.
That sounds reasonable--and affordable--but the widespread use of missile defense gear on U.S. commercial jets is still years, perhaps decades, away. While the government and the airlines argue over which system is better and who will foot the bill, we can only hope that terrorists don't force the issue. It's worth remembering that Israel's national carrier, El Al, installed armored cockpit doors well before 9-11. U.S. airlines deferred that decision--until Al Qaida's killers made them mandatory.