Existing technology to resist a shoulder-fired-missile attack on a commercial aircraft is too expensive and unreliable, according to a Rand Corp. study released yesterday.
Concerns about the potential for attacks on commercial aircraft have mounted since terrorists narrowly missed an Israeli plane in Kenya in 2002 and damaged a DHL Airlines aircraft near Baghdad International Airport in 2003.
Rand, a nonprofit research firm, studied military-based antimissile technology and concluded that adapting it for commercial airlines would be prohibitively expensive and that the equipment would be too difficult to maintain. The study said there were many unresolved questions about how the technology would operate on commercial airlines, noting that false alarms could be a problem and that terrorists might find ways to fool the systems. The report urged further study of the threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles -- known as man-portable air defense systems (Manpads) -- and the systems to defend against attacks.
The current technology is "expensive to operate in a commercial environment, so it's not prudent unless we can make it cheaper, or the nation as a whole decides we need to spend more on homeland security," said James Chow, lead author of the report.
The report estimated that it would cost $11 billion to install laser jammers on the 6,800 planes in the U.S. commercial fleet and $2.1 billion a year to maintain the systems.
The report acknowledged that the loss of even one commercial jetliner to a shoulder-fired missile would be significant, estimating the cost of the aircraft and legal settlement of numerous deaths at $1 billion. The cost could grow to $15 billion over several months from a single attack, if travelers were then reluctant to fly, the report said. "Well-financed terrorists will likely always be able to devise a Manpads attack scenario that will defeat whatever countermeasures have been installed, although countermeasures can make such attacks considerably more difficult and less frequent," the report said. "Installing countermeasures to Manpads attacks may simply divert terrorist efforts to less protected opportunities for attack."
The Department of Homeland Security awarded contracts last year to BAE Systems PLC and Northrop Grumman Corp. to test laser-based systems on jetliners that would interfere with or jam signals of an incoming missile and send it off course. The department's countermeasures program is already addressing many of the concerns raised by the Rand report, including lowering the cost and increasing the effectiveness of the companies' systems, spokesman Donald Tighe said. The department expects to submit results of tests of the systems to Congress next year.
The Rand report does not address the system being developed by Northrop Grumman, which would lower the installation cost to less than $6.8 billion for the entire U.S. fleet and increase the reliability of the equipment, said Jack Pledger, director of Northrop's countermeasures program. The company will install its laser-based system on a Boeing 747 and an MD-11 by year-end and conduct live-fire testing, he said.