Are Airliners Flying Targets?

Commercial aviation: Despite a clear and present terrorist threat, commercial jets remain vulnerable to missile attack.

Air travelers alarmed by the recent terrorist attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner have no reason to stop worrying. Little is likely to be done to reduce the threat.

The close call in Mombasa, Kenya, in which two suspected al Qaeda operatives fired Russian-made Strela-2 surface-to-air missiles at a packed 757, was the first such attack on a commercial jet outside a war zone. But don't expect airlines to install any of the available countermeasures, such as infrared jammers, used in military aircraft. The $1 million to $2 million for each installation is prohibitive, say
airlines, because 5,000 commercial
aircraft operate in the U.S. alone. However, the Air Transport Association, which represents most major airlines, has a suggestion: Taxpayers could foot the bill. "Protecting our citizens against threats of this type is the responsibility of our federal government," ATA spokesman Michael Wasco says.

But defense analyst John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org argues that what's at stake is not just people's lives, but the airline industry itself. "If the industry loses three jets on consecutive days, how much revenue will it generate on the fourth day?" he asks.

Two basic systems can be placed at the tails of aircraft to protect against missiles. The first, exemplified by BAE Systems' ALQ-204, uses a pulsing arc lamp to feed a false guidance system
to the missile's electronic homing mechanism. The second, directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM), includes Northrop Grumman's Nemesis and Rafael's Britening. DIRCM directs high-intensity spotlamps at the missile, flooding its seeker with infrared energy.

Pike points out that DIRCM's current prices reflect government contracts for "dozens to low-hundreds" of systems, and that the price is likely to drop if airlines buy them in thousands. On the other hand, nobody really knows how lethal the threat from shoulder-launched missiles (also known as man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads) might be. According to a recent paper in the Journal of Electronic Defense, Strela missiles miss three out of four of their targets. (In military exercises, the Soviets compensated by firing dozens of Strelas at each formation of enemy aircraft.) Manpads were designed to shoot down fighters and helicopters, which are densely packed with critical components. Though jetliners aren't designed to survive missile strikes on their fuselages, Manpads would most likely target an engine -- and jets are meticulously designed to survive an exploding engine.

The emerging danger is that terrorists will obtain newer and better weapons, such as the U.S.-built Stinger or the Russian Igla. These missiles use multiband seekers and better scan techniques, making them much harder to jam than a Strela. "There are big inventories
of Iglas in Ukraine, and unless they're nailed down at both ends, they're for sale," says Pike. Only now are the FAA and Congress
taking up the issue. Given the urgency of the problem, quick decisions are called for . . . but unlikely.