How to Protect Airliners from Missiles

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An Afghan guerrilla handling a CIA-supplied Stinger missile in the late '80s during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

It may cost the already cash-strapped airline industry billions of dollars, but defense officials believe last Thursday's botched missile strike on an Israeli airliner will raise pressure for the installation of sophisticated electronic protection gear on civilian planes. It's a problem the Pentagon has been grappling with for some time: Three years ago, the Defense Department told Congress the biggest threat to its cargo planes were shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles like the ones fired in Mombassa. Three months ago, on August 27, the Pentagon awarded a $23 million contract to outfit four Air Force C-17 cargo planes with sophisticated equipment to protect them from Stingers, SA-7s and other portable missiles favored by terrorists. "That's more than $5 million per plane," an Air Force officer said this week. "Once the first U.S. commercial airliner is shot down — and U.S. airlines rush to install these systems on their own planes — the price will drop to $2 million or $3 million per plane."

Not exactly a bargain, but U.S. defense officials believe such systems will have to become standard equipment aboard U.S. airliners. They say the terrorists' failure to down the Israeli charter plane last week may have simply been a product of poor training or a mechanical glitch.

The new Air Force system designed to defeat SAMs is an updated version of the AN/AAQ-24 (V) Nemesis, which protects both big transports (apparently including Air Force One) and military helicopters. Built by the Northrop Grumman Corp., it is known as the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures — LAIRCM — system, and will eventually be carried in all 943 cargo planes and tankers operated by the U.S. Air Force. Under current plans, the first C-17 will be outfitted with the system in 2004. Civilians may have to wait a little longer.

LAIRCM automatically detects, tracks and jams infrared missiles, sending a high-intensity laser beam into the missile's seeker, disrupting its guidance system. No action is required by the crew. The pilot simply is informed that a threat missile was detected and jammed. "Inexpensive, yet lethal, surface-to-air missiles have proliferated around the globe and unfortunately are in the hands of our potential adversaries," says Arnold Welch, vice president for Infrared Countermeasures Programs at Northrop Grumman's Defensive Systems Division in Rolling Meadows, Illinois. "It is essential that our military pilots and air crews have this sophisticated type of protection in order to perform their missions and return safely."

As governments bolster their defenses against terror, the terrorists will go after ever-softer targets. When you cannot fight your foe on the battlefield, you will hit his embassies. If they are hidden behind concrete walls, you will hit his banks. If they are protected by bullet-proof glass and armored plating, you will hit his schools, his hospitals, his resort hotels, his commercial airliners. And If the terrorists cannot board a U.S. airliner with box-cutters, they may be able to target it with surface-to-air missiles.

The threat of SAM attacks on U.S. airliners was acknowledged in an FAA study in 1993, which noted that as passenger and baggage screening became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise. The U.S. government's interest in the problem followed its decision to supply Afghan mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan — whose ranks included Osama bin Laden and many of his al-Qaeda lieutenants — with about 1,000 Stinger missiles in the 1980s. Pentagon officials credit the Stinger with downing about 250 Soviet aircraft.

U.S. officials estimate that the roughly 400 Stingers unaccounted for in Afghanistan are nearing the end of their useful life, if they haven't already passed it. While defense officials suggest the missile system's battery is good for only about five years, many remain potent after 10 years. Both the basic Stinger supplied to the Afghan rebels and the Soviet-designed SA-7s are fairly crude weapons. But the CIA has launched several efforts since they were delivered in 1986-87 to get them back, offering up to $100,000 per missile, and sometimes paying more, U.S. officials say. A Stinger is five feet long, 2.75 inches in diameter, weighs 35 pounds, and is "relatively easy" to operate, U.S. officials say. It homes in on the heat put out by a jet's engine, and can hit a plane at 10,000 feet from five miles away. That means the shooter can be located miles away from the airport where the plane being targeted is taking off or landing. There is concern among U.S. officials that al-Qaeda or other terrorists may have gotten their hands on better Soviet-designed shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles including the SA-14, SA-16 and SA-18.

Alan Kuperman, author of a detailed history of the Stingers' use in Afghanistan published in 1999 in Political Science Quarterly, suggests some of the Afghan Stingers ended up on the black market and could have fallen into the hands of a variety of groups, including Kashmiri rebels, Indian Sikhs, and Palestinian militants.

The discovery, last May, of SA-7 missile tube was near a Saudi military base used by U.S. warplanes prompted the FBI to alert U.S. law-enforcement agencies to be on the lookout for any signs that terrorists were planning shoulder-fired missile attacks. While the missile found in Saudi Arabia remained in its tube, burn marks suggested a bungled effort to fire it, U.S. officials said. A Sudanese with possible al Qaeda links was arrested in connection with the missile. "The FBI possesses no information indicating that al-Qaeda is planning to use 'Stinger' missiles or any type of MANPAD (MAN Portable Air Defense) weapons system against commercial aircraft in the United States," the FBI warning said. "However, given al-Qaeda's demonstrated objective to target the U.S. airline industry, its access to U.S. and Russian-made MANPAD systems, and recent apparent targeting of U.S.-led military forces in Saudi Arabia, law enforcement agencies in the United States should remain alert to potential use of MANPADs against U.S. aircraft." Pentagon officials say U.S. forces in Afghanistan have found 359 shoulder-fired SAMs during their year in the country.

At a November 14 hearing before the House Armed Services Committee, the chairman of a panel established to study U.S. vulnerabilities to terrorism talked about the SAM threat. "Nobody knows whether or not the enemy has their hands on a Stinger missile and can get it delivered into this country," James Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia, told the committee. "But it's a lot easier to do that, and a lot more available than, for example, a smallpox attack, which would be more difficult to get, and to deliver, into this country."