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Lawmaker wants missile countermeasures on civilian aircraft

A Ukrainian military aircraft flies as flares are set off near Slaviansk earlier this month. (REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)

Following the Thursday shootdown of a Malaysia Airlines aircraft over Ukraine by a surface-to-air missile, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R.-Ill.) wants to petition the Federal Aviation Administration to install missile defense systems on commercial airliners.

“I think they should actively look into mounting active defenses on civil aircraft that are carrying hundreds of people,” Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer, told our colleague Ashley Halsey. “It’s not too technically difficult to add a radar warning system on an aircraft, where a pilot in command could dispense chaff to defeat a radar-guided missile.”

While the lawmaker’s claim might sound a little like science fiction, a number of airlines have already installed warning devices and countermeasures to deal with man portable surface-to-air missiles, or MANPADS.

In September 2003, two shoulder-fired missiles were fired at an Israeli charter aircraft. The Boeing 757 had more than 250 people aboard and it was nearly hit by the rockets just after taking off from Mombasa, Kenya.

The near-miss prompted the Israeli airline, El Al, to equip its aircraft with “Flight Guard”, an anti-missile system that uses a combination of flares and warning devices to help avoid ground-fired, heat-seeking rockets.

The flare countermeasure confuses the rocket, which is designed to track a heat source such as the airplane’s engines. When the flares are jettisoned, the rocket no longer has a proper heat source to acquire and is usually thrown off course.

Kirk’s comments about chaff addressed a different type of countermeasure used specifically to confuse radar-seeking missiles such as the kind believed to have been used to shoot down MH17 ,which was traveling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

A chaff canister is the size of a soda can and explodes when launched from the aircraft. The ensuing steel shower is composed of radar-reflective metal that confuses the missile.

“There’s a lot of challenges using chaff,” an experienced Marine Corps fighter pilot said. “It’s a military thing.”

Since chaff is launched, in some ways like a weapon, it would have to be armed and disarmed by people on the ground with extensive training, he added.

“Chaff is used to confuse the missile,” said the pilot who requested anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media. “Chaff doesn’t defeat the threat, it merely buys you time.”

A fighter pilot uses chaff to out-maneuver the missile; an airliner however, moving more slowly and at 30,000 feet would be unable to maneuver in the same manner. If it did, it would probably endanger the passengers.

For this reason, the Marine Corps pilot said he doesn’t believe MH17 could have defeated the SA-11 with chaff.

“To be entirely safe you’d have to be jettisoning chaff the entire time over that part of Ukraine,” he said.

For reference, the average amount of time a regular fighter can eject chaff is for about a minute.

“You’d have to turn the airliner into a giant chaff can for it to work,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”