Last November, the captain of an Arkia Airlines flight from Mombasa, Kenya, felt a small bump - almost like a bird strike - and then saw two smoke trails going the past the wing of his Boeing 757. The "bird strike" turned out to be two ground-to-air missiles that just missed. But they prompted Israel to equip its commercial airline fleet with new electronic countermeasures to try to intercept future missile attacks.
Now, pressure is building for the US airline industry to implement similar safeguards. Government officials have talked about such moves ever since Sept. 11, but the high cost of installing a system has slowed momentum. A new push may be under way, however, with the disclosure that the government has foiled an arms dealer from selling a Russian-made ground-to-air missile.
In the next several months, it is believed, the US will decide on technology that will protect either planes as they take off or perhaps entire airports.
"The FBI operation will only make this happen much faster," says Rafi Ron, president of New Age Security Solutions, an airport security consultant. "The technology will be ready in a few months' time, The question is how long will it take to allocate the money and install the systems."
To install antimissile systems on each plane could cost $1 to $2 million per plane. Some estimates put the total cost as high as $10 billion.
At the request of the Bush administration, the government has asked eight defense contractors to search for feasible solutions. Last month, the Homeland Security Appropriations Bill included $60 million to adapt military technology for commercial use.
Legislation is also pending in Congress that would equip all commercial aircraft with antimissile technology once it is available.
"Since last February, when I introduced legislation to equip all commercial aircraft with antimissile technology, I have said that shoulder-fired missiles remain a serious threat to American planes both home and abroad," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, author of the bill, in a statement Tuesday.
The legislation, called the Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act, is currently in the Commerce Committee. The administration has yet to take a position on it, according to congressional sources.
According to Jane's Intelligence Review, the threat is substantial. The defense and security publication estimates there are currently 150,000 shoulder-fired missiles in circulation around the world and another 350,000 in defense stockpiles.
"More that 27 terrorist organizations are believed and/or confirmed to have MANPADS [missiles] in their inventories," wrote the publication in February. "Additionally, they are consistently working to upgrade to more sophisticated versions."
In fact, some security experts are doubtful that even with high-tech devices, the US can hold off attacks. "We're pretty susceptible," says George Friedman, chairman of Stratfor, a for-profit intelligence organization in Austin, Texas. "It's almost impossible to prevent."
For example, many airports are located in suburban or rural areas where it's difficult to keep terrorists a long distance away. "There is a clean line of fire," Mr. Friedman says.
US military jets often use flares and violent maneuvers to distract heat-seeking missiles. This is a technology that has been around since the Vietnam War. "You can do it on an A-10 [fighter aircraft] but not on a 747," says Friedman.
On top of that, missiles have become more sophisticated, he says. "It's relatively easy to reprogram a missile to ignore a new family of flares and redeploy them." Instead, Friedman says the US should focus on getting better intelligence. "You have to make a really aggressive intrusion into the international arms market," he says.
That's exactly what the FBI apparently did. It found a British arms dealer who, authorities say, claimed to have sold weapons to Al Queda in the past. Then, the FBI, working with Russian intelligence, sold him an SA-18 missile and launcher. The Russians disabled the missile and shipped it to the US. The FBI arrested the individual at a hotel near Newark Liberty International Airport.
Now, the FBI is trying to piece together other aspects of the case, including the allegation that some New York diamond merchants had financed the affair. "Did they know who they were dealing with?" asks Friedman. "It certainly wouldn't have been Al Queda because they would have never trusted these guys."
Mr. Ron thinks the FBI and other intelligence services will be making more arrests soon. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he says.