Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Measure of Protection, Part II

About six weeks ago, we noted that the Israeli state airline, El Al, was installing missile defense systems on its passenger jets. Initial reports indicated that the carrier would mount defensive systems on six of its airliners that operated in "high threat" areas. At a cost of $1 million per aircraft, the defensive gear represented a sizeable investment for El Al, but it also reflected the growing threat to passenger aircraft from man-portable, surface-to-air missiles (MANPAD SAMs).

Today's update from Haaretz indicates the El Al has actually outfitted all 29 of its passenger jets with missile defense systems over the past two years. I'm guessing that was the plan all along; given the capital investment--and the time required to schedule and outfit each aircraft--it's doubtful that El Al suddenly decided to expand the upgrade from a handful of aircraft, to its entire passenger fleet. The original report--which also appearaed in Haaretz was either inaccurate, or El Al security officials gave the reporter misleading information, to avoid tipping the airline's hand until the installation program was complete.

In any case, El Al is now the only airline with missile defense systems on all of its owned passenger jets. The airline leases five other passenger aircraft, and it's unclear if the defensive system will be installed on those jets as well. Missile defense systems are typically but around sensors, located at various points on the aircraft, which detect changes in IR energy associated with a missile launch. The sensors are linked to a central computer, which evaluates the information and dispenses countermeasures--usually a burst of laser energy, designed to blind the missile seeker. Some systems also dispense flares, intended to draw the missile away from the targeted aircraft.

Meanwhile, the FAA is conducting a study of competing missile defense systems installed on Boeing 767 and MD-11 aircraft. As part of an 18-month effort, Northrup-Grumman is testing one of its "Guardian" defensive suites on a FedEX MD-11 cargo jet. Rival BAE has installed its Jeteye systems on an American Airlines 767 for testing an evaluation. At this point, permanent installation of missile defenses on U.S. passenger aircraft is still years away.

And there's no guarantee that U.S. airliners will ever receive this protective gear. With most of the airlines struggling financially, few could afford the program without massive government subsidies, or the FAA completely underwriting the program. According to one government estimate, the "mainline" U.S. carriers will have almost 5,000 passenger jets in service by 2010; outfitting those aircraft would cost a mininmum of $5 billion, a pricetage that will likely rise in the coming years.

Does the threat justify the cost? MANPAD attacks against commercial aircraft have been somewhat rare, but the growing proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles makes them an ideal terrorist weapon. Downing even a single U.S. airliner with a MANPAD could have a devastating impact on the airline industry, and potentially drive more carriers out of business. Given the heavy volume of U.S. air traffic--and the potential availability of shoulder-fired SAMs, it is perhaps more surprising that there hasn't been a MANPAD attack against an airliner in this country. There are also disturbing rumors that the intelligence community may have underestimated the number of MANPADs produced by Russia and other manufacturers, including late-model missiles that have some resistance to countermeasures. If those rumors are true, there may be even more shoulder-fired SAMs available to terrorists, both at home and abroad.

Given these realities, I believe the FAA needs to expedite its evaluation program, and press ahead with installing missile defense suites on commercial passenger aircraft. The installation program could be funded with a ticket surcharge; according to Aviation Week, the charge would be $1 per ticket on a New York-Los Angeles flight, enough to pay for the system, installation and the extra fuel burn caused by the increased weight/drag associated with the defensive gear.

For a measure of protection against a known threat, $1 a ticket is reasonable--and affordable.

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