There's no doubt that a shoulder-fired missile in the hands of a terrorist presents a threat to commercial airplanes.
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.
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.
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."