Libya's missing missiles: a threat to US airline passengers

If terrorists get hold of some of Qaddafi's 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles and manage to bring down an airliner in the United States, the economic repercussions would be huge. Antimissile systems exist, but so far US airlines have balked at the expense.

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    In this file photo taken in March, a Libyan rebel holds his anti-aircraft missile as he looks to the sky, in the oil town of Ras Lanouf, eastern Libya. Worries are escalating that a cache of 20,000 such weapons has not been secured, allowing terrorists from Africa to Afghanistan access to weapons that could bring down commercial airliners.
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Are air passengers in the United States at risk from shoulder-fired missiles stolen from Libya?

The Obama administration has assured Americans that most of Muammar Qaddafi's cache of 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles (man-portable air defense systems or MANPADs) is still in Libya. However, House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers is not so sure.

In a CNN interview Nov. 14, the Michigan Republican expressed doubt that “very undisciplined” Libyan troops “will be able to secure the weapons sites” until the country is stable. That same day, one of al Qaeda’s North African commanders confirmed that his terrorist group (Al Qaeda Organization in the Islamic Maghreb) had obtained weapons looted during the bloody fight for control of Libya. Mr. Rogers’s concern was underscored by NATO’s military committee chairman, Adm. Giampaolo di Paola (now Italy’s new defense minister), who said Libyan MANPADs could be scattered “from Kenya to Kunduz [Afghanistan].”

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How many of Libya’s shoulder fired missiles have been stolen is unknown. However, if only a single missile – 4 to 5 feet long, weighing between 32 and 42 pounds – found its way from the Middle East or Africa to Asia, Europe, or the United States (smuggled in through, say, a tunnel from Mexico) and brought down a passenger aircraft, the economic impact would be huge. Some estimates put the direct costs of just one downed US passenger plane at $1 billion. 

These days, when the US economy is struggling already, the downing of a passenger plane by a MANPAD would lead not only to  the grounding of the entire nation's passenger fleet, but to the devastation of the air-travel dependent US economy. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, it took four years before US passenger traffic returned to pre-9/11 levels.

As if the threat from missing Libyan MANPADS were not enough, there are additional concerns. Spreading destabilization in the Middle East and Africa, Iran’s growing reach in Latin America, the US withdrawal from Iraq, rising violence in Afghanistan, and worsening relations with Pakistan, are enabling easier movement of stolen missiles, increasing the dangers to commercial carriers.

And this time, US airline executives would not be able to claim that they were unaware of the threat; this time they would be held responsible. And so should the US government.

If the security and protection of American commercial-air passengers were a real government priority, effective counter-MANPAD systems would have been developed and deployed long ago. This need was acknowledged repeatedly following 9/11, and millions of American taxpayer dollars have been allocated to develop counter-MANPAD systems for protecting civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. And yet, the US civilian fleet, with more than 7,000 aircraft, remains vulnerable to the missiles, whose 10,000-foot range could hit them during takeoffs and landings.

The airlines have balked at the cost and weight of currently available American  systems for what they strangely view as a limited threat. They rely mostly on a 2005 RAND study, which concluded that the then available protection systems were not cost effective.

Since then, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been working on a lightweight, laser-based system, called Excalibur, which would protect a variety of airborne platforms, from low-lying aircraft to unmanned, remotely piloted drones In its fiscal 2012 budget, the Defense Department requests $21.4 million to support the missile-countermeasures program. But with deep budget cuts a veritable certainty, Excalibur development could be delayed – or terminated completely.

However, there are alternatives.  At least one well-tested, lightweight system is already available – the Multi Spectral Infrared Countermeasure system (MUSIC or C-Music for commercial applications). This missile-defense system was developed and tested by ELOP, a unit of Israel’s Elbit Systems Ltd., and was selected, for example, for Brazil’s Embraer KC-390 transport-tanker, and by the Israeli government for all aircraft comprising the country’s commercial air fleet, including El Al’s.

Measuring about 9 feet long, the system’s hardware can be installed on an aircraft’s exterior or inside the fuselage. It “has no moving parts outside the aircraft,” says ELOP’s vice president, Dan Slasky. The C-Music version has a smaller cross-section, significantly decreasing drag, and weighs approximately 25 percent less than current systems on the market. The 418-pound exterior-mounted version is housed in a sealed pod that can be transferred to another aircraft in about 40 minutes. It also is compatible with power and space limitations of smaller transports, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320, as well as military utility helicopters.

A variant that mounts inside an aircraft fuselage weighs less than 350 pounds, and is linked to low-profile sensors embedded in the exterior skin.

Protection is needed now, and viable heat-seeking missile countermeasures are readily available. Instead of jeopardizing the safety of US passengers and crews, and unnecessarily increasing risks to the US economy, the federal government should move speedily to develop and install antimissile systems that will keep American civilians safe in the sky.

– Rachel Ehrenfeld, director of New York-based American Center for Democracy and its Economic Warfare Institute, is author of "Funding Evil; How Terrorism is Funded – and How To Stop It."

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