Is Airline Missile Defense In Jeopardy?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

A report to Congress obtained by the Associated Press and now ABC7 shows we have a long way to go before commercial airliners will have built-in missile defense systems. The federal government thinks small, portable rockets are a threat to passenger airplanes. But that's a matter of controversy, as is a possible solution.

We're talking about small heat-seeking missiles that target a planes engine. Two years ago ago the Department of Homeland Security gave Northrop-Grumman and BAE systems $45,000,000 each to work on adapting military missile defense systems for use by the airlines, but that's turning out to be more challenging than expected.

A Department of Homeland Security report to Congress obtained by ABC7 says it could take over two decades to equip commercial airplanes with military-style missile defense systems. The report comes mid-way through a study of how to protect airlines against small, manually portable rockets, also called "manpads."

A manpad just missed an Israeli airplane carrying 270 passengers from Kenya to Israel four years ago. Senator Diane Feinstein's plane was targeted by one on a trip to Baghdad two years ago.

Estimates are a couple dozen terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, have thousands in their arsenals.

Senator Barbara Boxer has pushed for equipping commercial planes with missile defense systems.

Senator Barbara Boxer: "Our airplanes are sitting or flying ducks. It's a disaster waiting to happen."

But the report says the proposed systems are too unreliable for commercial planes, and too expensive to maintain.

ABC news aviation consultant John Nance: "In some respects this is a solution in search of a problem."

Nance thinks the threat of a manpad attack on U.S. soil is negligable.

Also, the manpads can only target one engine at a time, but commercial planes have two to four engines and can fly crippled.

John Nance: "If the threat is miniscule and the possibility of bringing one down more miniscule, what is safe? Safe is an airliner chained to the ground and move up from there."

Nance thinks installing the systems only on planes flying internationally makes more sense.

John Nance: "I would say that would be a reasonable expenditure that would be the place to start."

The report says 1,000 planes could be equipped for $1,000,000 each. But there's no discussion of who would pay for it. Nance says congress doesn't want to and the airlines can't afford it. A final report is due to Congress in two years.

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