Anti-missile defense systems have legislators’ attention

 - November 27, 2007, 10:03 AM

Man-carried portable air defense systems (Manpads), also known as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, in the hands of terrorists have a lot of people very worried. It’s debatable how significant the concern really is– particularly in comparison with the threat from other sources. Estimates run to about 30,000 Manpads available on the black market, ranging in price from as little as $10,000 each for the less sophisticated Soviet-era types to as high as $100,000 or much more for top-of-the-line, U.S.-manufactured Stingers.

The task facing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) involves assessing the level of threat from Manpads, determining the best, most cost-effective means of countering the threat and then securing funding to carry out the plans.

From the political perspective, the most important issue is what to do to protect the 6,000 or so U.S. airliners. Politics also dictates timelines. The more immediate the threat, the greater the incentive to appropriate tax dollars more quickly to implement a plan of defense. When a UK citizen was arrested this summer while allegedly attempting to sell a Russian SA-18 surface-to-air missile to a terrorist group, the issue came to the forefront of public interest. Two bills are before Congress, one in the House and one in the Senate, to mandate electronic anti-missile defense systems aboard all U.S. airliners.

Initial Funding Approved
To date, a working group within the TSA has secured initial funding to begin research into such onboard missile-defense systems. Congress has appropriated $60 million for fiscal 2004 (which began last month) and plans to secure another $60 million for FY2005. That funding is earmarked strictly for research and development, with none of it expected to go directly toward actual hardware for outfitting airliners with the resulting defense systems.

It has been widely estimated that systems will cost between $1 million and $3 million per aircraft, for an overall cost of some $10 billion to protect the entire U.S. airliner fleet. That estimate does not include maintenance of the systems or training for crews in how to operate them. According to TSA officials, there are no plans at this time to equip any aircraft with systems before 2005. Some in Congress fervently believe this is not soon enough.

As part of the TSA funding, the working group evaluated proposals from vendors for airborne missile-defense systems. The candidates were narrowed down to eight. The working group is expected to decide before the end of next month which five of the vendors would receive additional funding to continue research. Though the short list of eight candidates was not made public, one of the eight, Sanders Design International (SDI) of Wilton, N.H., released information about its proposed system.

SDI has a long history of developing military missile-defense systems and teamed with Analogic of Peabody, Mass., to co-develop the system. Analogic is known for its production expertise in high-tech electronic equipment and is one of the leading suppliers of the baggage-checking equipment supplied to the TSA. Not insignificantly, the equipment was developed and delivered in 15 months after 9/11.

SDI president Al Hastbacka told AIN there were two phases currently outlined in the TSA program. Phase I, expected to take about six months, would involve an analysis of the financial implications of mandating missile-defense systems, including both manufacturing and maintenance cost assessments. The second phase, expected to take about a year-and-a-half, would involve development and demonstration of the systems, all of which involve existing technology adapted to the mission of protecting civil aircraft. But he added, “If we were to have an ‘event’ that would accelerate the demand, we could go into quick reaction mode. From order to product delivery we could do it in as little as nine months, in extremis.”

One important difference between missile-defense systems designed for military applications and those meant for civilian aircraft is the combined nature of the latter technology. A military aircraft can combine phosphorous flares and other systems, such as ground-bound missile-detection systems or AWACS-based alert systems, with its onboard anti-missile defense system. Also, military pilots receive regular training in defensive maneuvering to avoid missiles once they are detected–either electronically or visually. Civil applications, for airliners or business jets, would almost necessarily be autonomous self-contained systems, deployed for takeoff and landing, then stowed for cruise flight to reduce the drag penalty.

Alternative to Lasers
Military laser systems, upon which some of the proposed civil systems would be based, are necessarily expensive and require relatively high levels of regular maintenance. SDI, however, is proposing a much less expensive, lighter and more easily maintained product called the special infrared countermeasures system (SICM). The system uses three high-intensity heat sources mounted on the wingtips and tail. The heat sources are pulsed to confuse the missile’s tracking system, making the airplane appear to be traveling at a significantly different speed (faster or slower). Hastbacka told AIN, “The missiles’ guidance systems are programmed to provide proportional navigation.” In other words, the missile leads the airplane in flight as a duck hunter calculates the flight path of his prey before pulling the trigger.

The SICM system modulates the infrared source, similarly to the way the sequencing of a police car’s strobe lights at night can generate the illusion that the car is going much faster or slower than it actually is. “The guidance systems of existing missiles have never seen a target like this before,” said Hastbacka. The SICM has the added advantage that it weighs only about 10 pounds and can be retracted inside the airframe for cruise flight. Hastbacka said, “The crew turns it on for takeoff, shuts it down at 15,000 feet and turns it back on for landing.”

One of the other big advantages of the system, said Hastbacka, is that rather than being designed to defeat the guidance systems of a heat-seeking missile, the SICM is actually designed to attract the missile–just to a point in space where the airplane isn’t. He said, “A laser system must target only one missile at a time. Terrorists know this and would presumably use more than one missile in an attack, launched from different angles. The SICM doesn’t care if there is one missile out there or 100. It is equally effective either way.”

Hastbacka concedes that the most sophisticated Manpads–such as the U.S. Stingers and later-model Russian SA-16/18s–could defeat the SICM more readily than they could a laser system. But doing so would require significant skill on the part of the operator, he said. Furthermore, SDI’s data indicate that of all the Manpads available on the black market, less than 10 percent are the more sophisticated (and much more expensive) Stinger- or SA-16/18-class missiles. Some 70 percent of the available missiles are of the more primitive SA-7 class, left over from Cold War days.
Bargain Price
Perhaps the greatest attraction of the SICM system proposed by SDI and Analogic is its price. Hastbacka claims to be able to bring the system to market for about $250,000 per unit, compared with $1- to $3 million each for laser-based systems. It will be up to the TSA to decide whether an SICM system is adequate protection from the Manpads threat, or whether a more sophisticated laser-based system is needed. Or if any airborne system is needed at all.

A large part of assessing the threat involves anticipating whether or not terrorist groups would find it worth the expense and risk to acquire one or many of the more sophisticated systems, train someone to use them, smuggle them into the U.S. or other Western country and bring them to bear. The TSA could decide that the tax money spent on developing (and perhaps supplying) airborne missile-defense systems could be better used on intelligence to track the source of such weapons. Further, the security agency has developed expertise and guidelines for assessing the vulnerability of airports to Manpads, based on accessibility to potential launch sites.

Limiting access to such sites and, perhaps, installing surveillance equipment to watch for suspicious activity (even using surveillance satellites) could ultimately end up being more effective and less costly than equipping every airliner and business jet with an airborne missile-defense system.