The High Cost of Protecting Against Missile Attack

 - February 1, 2007, 10:43 AM

Fear mongering has been a growth industry in the U.S. since 8:46 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001. Sometimes our discomfort is an unspoken undercurrent; other times there is no subtlety as the forces of opportunism seek to gorge at a trough flash-flooded with public money. We have seen it in aviation, with, for example, the developer of a sport/business two-seat jet (which has yet to fly) proposing the machine as a “homeland defense interceptor” not long after 9/11.

The American psyche today is scarred by an angst that has never before taken root in home soil. Not that Americans are cowering–far from it, in fact. This sense of agitation about what is to come is driving actions on many fronts that are proving to be immensely expensive, from war overseas to shoring up perceived vulnerabilities at home. Budgets are reeling from these ever deepening efforts to bolster our defenses and run the enemy to ground, and we are now forced to face the reality that no matter how many dollars we throw at security, we can never entirely eliminate threats to our domestic peace and way of life.

Since aviation was the weapon of choice on 9/11 it has attracted considerable attention in the ensuing fortifications, but an event in Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002 placed in a new light all the efforts aimed at beefing up airport security and making airliner cockpits impregnable. It was then, 14 months after 9/11, that an Israeli Boeing 757 came under attack from two SA-7 surface-to-air missiles shortly after it took off from Mombasa Airport.

Both missiles missed their target that day, but they scored a bull’s eye in further spooking an already jittery traveling public about fresh dangers the airlines are unprepared to deal with. The failed attack in Africa also raised questions about the practicality of pouring billions of dollars into airline and airport security programs that suddenly were no longer the end-all in the quest to secure airline travel.

A Direct Hit
One year later, in November 2003, terrorists again put an airliner in the sights of a Manpads (man-portable air defense system) surface-to-air missile. This time they hit it, crippling a DHL Airbus A300 freighter shortly after takeoff from Baghdad that would certainly have crashed had it not been for the discipline, perseverance and flying skill of the crew that had the misfortune to be at the helm that day.

The missile’s impact ruptured the airplane’s hydraulics and started a fire in the left wing, leaving the pilots with nothing more than trim and engine thrust for bringing some semblance of control to the twinjet and executing a safe landing back at Baghdad Airport. Once again, the attack highlighted the vulnerability of airliners beyond anything that could be averted by the billions of dollars being spent on airport check-in security, cockpit doors and air marshals.

Six months after the Mombasa attack, Washington announced it would award development contracts for countermeasures and that it expected the program to
be expensive, costing an estimated $7 to $10 billion.

Against this backdrop comes a recent report from the Rand Corp. that examines the pros and cons of fitting the 6,800 U.S. commercial jetliners with hardware to detect and defeat missiles, along with other methods to reduce the threat. The report emphasizes the importance of “a multilayered approach because no single countermeasure technology can defeat all possible Manpads attacks with high confidence.” In a nutshell, the report concludes that onboard missile countermeasures systems are a nice idea but too costly as currently proposed.

“Given the significant costs involved with operating countermeasures based upon current technology, we believe a decision to install such systems aboard airliners should be postponed until the technologies can be developed and shown to be more compatible in a commercial environment. This development effort should proceed as rapidly as possible.

“Concurrently, a development effort should begin immediately that focuses on understanding damage mechanisms and the likelihood of catastrophic damage to airliners from Manpads and other forms of man-portable weapons. Findings from the two development programs should inform a decision on the number of aircraft that should be equipped with countermeasures (from none to all 6,800 U.S. jet-powered airliners) and the sequence in which aircraft are to be protected.”

Aside from the fact that we all ride on the airlines sometimes, you might be asking how the issue of protecting the airliner fleet relates to business jets. Beyond the obvious parallels that a business jet too is vulnerable to a Manpads attack during certain stages of flight and that systems are already available to protect executive jets, the Rand report delves into the possible consequences of a successful missile attack on a U.S. airliner in domestic airspace.

Referring to the broader damage as “potential economic welfare impact from an attack,” Rand takes the 9/11 aftermath as a template and divides the cost into three categories: immediate, tangible losses from the attack; losses to travelers and airlines during a subsequent air-travel shutdown; and losses to travelers and airlines from reduced demand once the industry resumes operations.

Initial damages would approach $1 billion per aircraft destroyed, according to Rand, using a hull value of $200 to $250 million and 300 passengers killed at a cost of $2 million to $2.5 million per life lost. Basing its instincts on the aftermath of 9/11, Rand “infers that shutdowns of individual airports and the whole system are a possibility if a Manpads attack were to be successful.” By assessing the “economic welfare impact” (a measure of consumer and producer surplus–see page 8 of the report at for a full explanation of the calculations at work here), Rand arrives at a combined economic welfare loss of $3.4 billion for a one-week shutdown and $14 billion for a one-month shutdown of the airline and airport system.

The report focuses on airlines, but it seems entirely reasonable to assume that with the airlines grounded, the government will not see fit to keep the lights on for general aviation, and business aircraft would be grounded for at least as long as the airlines–and probably longer, if 9/11 is anything to go by.

Rand’s “multilayered approach” favors not only the eventual adoption of onboard hardware but also a broader set of initiatives aimed at striking and capturing terrorists abroad, impeding their acquisition of missiles and preventing them and their weapons from entering the U.S. “Attention should also be paid,” Rand notes, “to keeping Manpads-equipped terrorists out of areas adjacent to airports and improving airliners’ ability to survive fire-induced Manpads damage.”

Easier Said than Done
However, as information later in the report serves to highlight, sterilizing the area around an airport is much easier said than done. Rand says it was able to obtain, through public sources, standard arrival and departure patterns for Los Angeles International Airport. “These patterns describe where and how low airliners fly in the airport’s vicinity,” the report noted.

With this information in mind, Rand defined the area within which a terrorist armed with a Soviet-era SA-7 SAM could hope to succeed as 870 square miles of the LA region. Using a more modern Manpads weapon such as an SA-18 (capable of engaging a slow-flying airliner at up to 18,000 feet), the bad guys could lurk anywhere within a 4,600-square-mile region. How anyone can seriously propose securing the airport environment against a small crew with a Manpads, a panel van and bad intentions seems something of a mystery.

Rand does acknowledge the futility of expecting to secure the entire area of launch opportunity around an airport but still holds out some hope: “Completely preventing an attack solely through the use of enhanced security perimeters would be impractical…However, since the probability that most Manpads will hit a target drops rapidly when fired near the maximum range, the security emphasis might be placed on preventing launches from closer ranges–for example, near the airport.”

Anti-missile hardware examined in the Rand report includes conventional and advanced flares, laser jammers and high-energy lasers. At one point the report assumes that the bad guys will have new-technology, harder-to-defeat Manpads, which is perhaps a stretch in light of reports that the real threat is the thousands
of relatively older-tech systems that are quite easily obtained and probably already in bad hands.

The Price Tag
Rand estimates the total life cycle cost of developing, testing, certifying, buying, installing, operating (the drag and weight of the system would increase the fleet’s fuel consumption to the tune of $45,000 per aircraft per year) and maintaining laser directed infrared countermeasures for the 6,800 U.S. jet airliners to be $38.2 billion (2003 dollars). That figure breaks down as $11.2 billion for fleet-wide installation and $27 billion in operating and support (O&S) costs, with maintenance costs predicated on a mean time between failures (MTBF) of 800 hours.

Rand places these figures in perspective by noting that the 2004 DHS budget was $36.5 billion. The $2.1 billion annual O&S cost for Manpads protection looks small against the $16 billion for military operations in Afghanistan and the $71 billion for the war in Iraq. But it is also almost half the total budget for all transportation security.

In the end, perhaps market forces will play a role. Companies are offering systems, and if Airline A is the first carrier to buy and install Manpads protection, it will hold a distinct advantage over Airlines B through Z until they follow suit. That hasn’t happened yet, with the U.S. Air Transport Association (the airlines’ lobbying arm) standing firm in its position that keeping the traveling public safe from attack is a job for federal coffers, not the overloaded and out-of-c.g.-limits budgets of the carriers themselves.

In the meantime, some business jet manufacturers will be happy to put a check mark against missile protection systems on the order paperwork for certain types of business jets on which they are offered.

It was FDR who famously said, back in the Depression, that all we have to fear is fear itself. More recently, Benjamin Friedman, a graduate student in political science at MIT, writing for the institute’s publication Breakthroughs last year and quoted in The Atlantic early this year, answered the question of our era: “Who are the victims of terrorism? Those that the terrorists kill or maim and those that fear terrorism.

Terrorism takes its name not from violence but from the emotion violence provokes. Terrorists are the enemy. So is fear… If we are all afraid of terrorism, we are all its victims. In the war on terror, policies that encourage fear are a self-inflicted wound.”