An FAA notice of proposed special conditions scheduled for publication in the Federal Register on January 18 outlines a proposal by FedEx to install a laser-based anti-missile system on Airbus A321s. The design feature centers on a system that emits infrared laser energy outside the aircraft as a countermeasure against heat-seeking missiles. The express delivery carrier, which does not currently operate A321s, applied for a supplemental type certificate to install the system back in October 2019.
Several cases of civilian aircraft fired upon by man-portable air defense systems (manpads) have occurred in recent years, prompting some companies to design systems that direct infrared laser energy toward an incoming missile to interrupt its tracking of the aircraft's heat. High-profile incidents include the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 in 2014 by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine, killing all 298 people on board. Most recently, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a Ukraine International Airlines 737-800 shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 occupants.
The concept of equipping anti-missile systems on commercial airplanes isn’t new. El Al began fitting a system developed by Israeli aerospace supplier Elta called Flight Guard, two years after an attempt in September 2002 to shoot down an Arkia Israel Airlines over Mombasa, Kenya. Since then, Arkia and Israir have installed the systems on their airplanes as well.
The installations did not come without controversy, however. Flight Guard fires flares as decoys against incoming missiles, raising fire hazard concerns among some civil aviation authorities. Meanwhile, the infrared laser energy can pose safety hazards on the aircraft, on the ground, and on other aircraft, according to the FAA. Invisible to the human eye, infrared light can result in eye and skin damage, and affect a flight crew's ability to control the aircraft. It also can affect other aircraft, whether airborne or on the ground, the FAA notice emphasizes. Because FAA design standards for transport category airplanes did not envision that a design feature could project infrared laser energy outside the airplane, the agency developed special conditions to allow for its certification.
Special conditions, in this case, include a requirement for the design to prevent inadvertent activation on the ground or in the air and mandates related language in-flight manuals and instructions for maintenance.