Next in flight: antimissile system
Three 767s will start running the technology in April, but experts question this use of homeland-security resources.
There's no doubt that a shoulder-fired missile in the hands of a terrorist presents a threat to commercial airplanes.Skip to next paragraph
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But how serious is it compared with other tactics that terrorists could employ? And how much should the United States spend to thwart such an attack?
Those questions have gained new salience, in part, because in April, the first tests of technology to counter shoulder-fired missiles will begin aboard commercial airplanes.
Three American Airlines 767s that fly daily between New York and Los Angeles will be fitted with little laser-equipped robots designed to detect and divert shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles. The tests, however, don't involve shooting any missiles at commercial planes, homeland-security officials stress. The goal is to see how the technology stands up to the wear and tear of daily flights, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notes.
Advocates say that this defensive system is essential to protecting America from another devastating terrorist attack on the aviation system – one that could cost hundreds of lives and tens of billions of dollars. But they also acknowledge that it will be expensive: Just to equip all commercial planes would cost an estimated $11 billion, which is before maintenance and operation costs.
Opponents, including major US airlines – even American, which is nonetheless cooperating with the test – argue that such a system would be a wasteful use of limited homeland-security dollars. The money, they say, could be better spent on less-expensive defenses and more-immediate threats. In addition, the technology has documented high failure rates, they note.
The debate has pitted the airlines against some powerful members of Congress, who have passed legislation mandating that DHS carry out this current $29 million test.
On the record, DHS officials are neutral, stating only that they are doing as Congress directed and will report back as ordered. On background, several are skeptical whether this is the best use of DHS's limited resources.
Several homeland-security experts are less tactful, calling the idea everything from a "boon for a defense contractor" to "a waste of money." The most generous expert assessment came from Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.
"It's always hard to make these judgments," says Professor Greenberger. "It is wise to test to see how it works, but I just don't think it should be a priority, given that there are just so many other things we should be doing that we're not."
Incidents documented: 35
Shoulder-fired missiles are also known as "man-portable air-defense systems," or MANPADS. In an effort to judge the likelihood of a MANPADS attack in the US, the RAND Corp. undertook a major analysis in 2005. Since the 1970s, the study notes, more than 700,000 shoulder-fired missiles have been manufactured around the world. At least six terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, have a stockpile. Referring to a 2003 Congressional Research Service report, the study also notes that there have been 35 instances in which shoulder-fired missiles have been used to attack commercial aircraft, resulting in 500 casualties.