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U.S. ready to test anti-Manpadsystem on767 airliner

 - December 13, 2006, 7:22 AM

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is about to oversee tests of antimissile airliner protection equipment on board an American Airlines Boeing 767. By year-end, three aircraft are to be used for testing prototype equipment under development by Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems as officials seek to resolve whether the systems can be sufficiently effective and affordable for mass deployment on civil airliners.

In late 2003, the U.S. Congress directed the DHS to initiate the development of civil airline equipment able to detect and deflect man-portable air defense system (Manpads) missiles. Fired from lightweight, easily concealed launchers, these supersonic, explosive-tipped missiles use small infrared sensors to home onto a jet engine’s heat plumes, with devastating effect.

The DHS development program calls for prototype units slated to be ready for operational evaluations with airlines in 2006, followed by full-scale production in 2007. However, a major question that has now arisen in the U.S. is whether the airlines will, or even should, install these units in their fleets.

In view of the number of civil aircraft that have been shot down by Manpads, coupled with the certain knowledge that several thousand such missiles are held by terrorist organizations around the world–most of whom would doubtless relish the thought of downing a U.S. airliner–providing this level of defense would appear to be beyond debate. Yet the issue has now turned from flight safety to economics.

A Question of Economics

Last year, the DHS awarded separate $45 million contracts to Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems to develop civil versions of their proven military antimissile systems. But among the contracts’ specifications was the requirement–assuming that all 6,800-plus U.S. airliners would be equipped–that when production reaches 1,000 units, the single unit price will drop to $1 million or less. (Not specified by the DHS, but estimated by industry experts, was that installation and associated down time could add another half-million dollars to the total cost per aircraft.)

It was these costs that launched the controversy, since most major U.S. airlines–each owning several hundred aircraft–are still fighting off bankruptcy. Addressing a Congressional committee in January, a representative of the U.S. Air Transport Association (ATA) stated that while his organization was committed to safety, it was concerned that a potentially mandatory anti-Manpads program might be followed by other, equally costly, security initiatives still at the conceptual stage, but all lacking coherent risk assessments. ATA believes that the program is “promoted largely at the instigation of the vendor community without an adequate information base.” He also stressed that the defense of the aviation industry must be a national priority, supported by general taxation, adding that “any suggestion that the industry could sustain such costs was misplaced.”

Think Tank Weighs In

ATA found an academic ally in the Rand Corporation, an independent U.S. think tank that questioned whether the program’s potential benefits are worth the costs. Rand researchers havecalculated that fleetwide airline anti-Manpads acquisition and installation would cost $1.1 billion, plus 10-year life-cycle costs of $27 billion. They then estimated that the loss of one airliner and its passengers to a Manpads attack would approach $1 billion and the total cost to the industry and the public at $15 billion.

Rand therefore proposed that airline installations should be postponed, to allow for improvements in technology, and that initial efforts be concentrated on other preventive measures, such as increasing efforts to confiscate weapons and/or capture terrorists abroad and by taking steps to prevent terrorists and their weapons from entering the U.S. It also suggested strengthening the airline fleet against missile attacks, by repositioning their control, fuel and other systems to less vulnerable onboard locations, but one aircraft design engineer consulted by Aviation International News commented that even if this were practical, its cost could easily exceed the $28 billion forecast for the antimissile project.

The researchers also recommended increased patrols around airport perimeters, while acknowledging that Manpads missiles– whose striking range can be up to three miles and 15,000 feet–could be launched from anywhere within several hundred square miles. (The DHS appeared to accept this last proposal, and in May proceeded to supply high-tech, GPS-linked, cellular phones to clam diggers working the mud flats around Boston’s Logan Airport, with instructions to report any suspicious activity.)

The DHS did not, however, respond to Rand’s other proposals, but instead confirmed its commitment to the ongoing development program by increasing its budget to $110 million to cover system operational evaluations in 20 jet freighters next year.

On the other hand, Rand’s proposals produced a strong rebuttal from the Cato Institute, another respected U.S. think tank, which agreed that the program was too great a burden for the airline industry but felt its cost could easily be covered by the federal government, citing several examples of massively wasteful spending of taxpayers’ money on so-called “pork barrel” local projects, which totaled $23 billion in 2004–inserted by individual Congressmen into important spending bills.

U.S. industry observers now feel that a mandatory government-funded, anti-Manpads installation program is highly likely, but critical questions remain, including that of denying U.S. entry to nonequipped foreign airliners. Anticipating this, a recent policy from IATA’s Global Aviation Security Action Group states that any national legislation on this issue must apply only to aircraft registered in that nation.

A secondary concern is that some anti-Manpads systems built overseas use pulse Doppler techniques to detect and track incoming missiles, a technique that disqualified a United Airlines bidding team in the final selection for the DHS development effort. When emitted by significant numbers of aircraft in high density terminal airspace, pulse Doppler transmissions can potentially interfere with ground-based navaids such as DME and TACAN, and, under certain conditions, GPS and satellite communications.