Next in flight: antimissile system
Three 767s will start running the technology in April, but experts question this use of homeland-security resources.
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This has given ammunition to advocates of the defensive system. "Shoulder-fired missiles are the biggest threat to commercial aviation around the world, not according to me, but according to the State Department and the intelligence community," says Rep. Steve Israel (D) of New York, a leader in the fight to equip commercial planes with the anti-MANPADS technology.Skip to next paragraph
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But the RAND study also contains some caveats. It notes that none of the attacks have taken place in the US. And most of the successful ones were on smaller, nonjet aircraft such as turboprops and helicopters. In fact, only five of the 35 recorded attacks were on commercial jets. Two of them resulted in "catastrophic losses," according to the RAND study. The other planes managed to land safely.
Critics of investing in anti-MANPADS technology for the commercial aviation system note that a grenade launcher or high-powered rifle could inflict similar damage. They say that far less expensive defenses could be deployed as effectively to deal with an array of potential threats. Such defenses include creating ground-based antimissile systems around airports and developing unmanned aerial vehicles or drones that could circle airports and shoot down shoulder-fired missiles. DHS is currently studying these options.
"We have limited resources as a society," says John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association (ATA), which represents major carriers. "We believe this whole counter-MANPADS is really a push by the vendors [defense contractors] and ought to be put through a thorough risk assessment and a determination made as to how serious this is compared to the other risks we're facing as a society."
The RAND study notes that the $11 billion it would take to equip the commercial aviation sector with the technology would take up only a portion of current antiterror resources, including DHS's annual $38 billion budget. But the study also cautions that the $2.1 billion it would cost annually to maintain and operate the systems would take up 50 percent of the DHS resources that are allocated to protect the entire US transportation infrastructure.
Another motive at work?
One airline official, who asked not to be named, said planes are "vulnerable to all kinds of threats," not just shoulder-fired missiles. He suggested the reason that Congress is pushing anti-MANPADS technology is because defense contractors – who are also large campaign contributors – "have equipment they want to sell."
"This is a classic example of what goes on in Washington," says the official.
Representative Israel's office confirms that BAE Systems, which received the most recent testing contract, and Northrop Grumman, which has a similar contract to test the technology on cargo jets, both have offices "in or near" his district. An analysis of Israel's campaign contributions by the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington found that both defense contractors were top contributors to the congressman. Since 1989, Northrop Grumman's political action committee has contributed $31,750, and BAE Systems has given 29,250 to Israel.
Israel's office notes that his interest in the issue came long before the recent contract awards by DHS. He also says that the airlines' opposition is primarily because they don't want to have to spend their own money on such technology.
"The ATA is putting dollars ahead of defense," he says. "There's no question it's expensive, but in the long run, it's a heck of a lot cheaper than the loss of a single plane."