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More Delays On MANPADs

MANPADs (pictured) are small heat-seeking missiles that target a planes engine.
by Martin Sieff
UPI Senior News Analyst
Washington (UPI) Aug 10, 2006
First, the good news: the Department of Homeland Security has finally issued contracts to defend U.S. airliners against shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. Now the bad news: in a report to Congress, the department says it may take 20 years to fully equip U.S. airliners with counter-measures against the threat.

Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems Electronics and Integrated Solutions have been awarded $55.4 million contracts for Phase III, or Tier III development of the Department of Homeland Security's Counter-Man Portable Air Defense System, or Counter-MANPADS, program, the company announced this week.

UPI reported the Northrop Grumman contract Tuesday. BAE's was awarded slightly later and will be announced publicly early next week.

The first project calls for Northrop to produce a dozen of its Guardian missile defense systems and then place them aboard nine MD-10 cargo planes flying in regular service. Guardian is designed to detect an incoming missile and direct an invisible multi-band laser at its seeker head, disrupting its guidance system.

The system is based on existing military counter-measures technology and was adapted to MD-11 and Boeing 747 planes during a 16-month flight test program using simulated missile launches.

Two years ago, DHS gave Northrop-Grumman and BAE Systems $45 million each to work on adapting military missile defense systems for use by the airlines, but the job is turning out to be more challenging than expected.

A departmental report to congress first reported by Leslie Miller of the Associated Press and posted on the Web by government transparency campaigner Steven Aftergood, says it could take over two decades to equip the U.S. commercial air fleet with such military-style missile defense systems.

MANPADs are small heat-seeking missiles that target a planes engine. Terrorist groups around the world are already believed to have thousands of them in their arsenals. An al-Qaida linked group in Kenya used one in 2002 in a failed effort to shoot down a planeload of Israeli tourists.

And an aircraft flying Sen. Diane Feinstein, D--Calif., into Baghdad was targeted by one two years ago.

But many homeland security experts in the United States are skeptical about the need for defenses against MANPADs. They note that no U.S. airliner has ever been shot down by one.

However, those who take the threat seriously cross the entire political spectrum from the libertarian right to the liberal Democratic left.

Military analyst Charles Pena warned in a study some years ago for the libertarian conservative Cato Institute in Washington that if any U.S. civilian airliner was downed by a MANPADs attack, the impact on the U.S. airline industry and the general domestic economy could be devastating. He therefore advocated taking the threat seriously and fast-tracking programs to develop counter-measures against it.

Feinstein's California colleague in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., has warned that U.S. airliners are "flying ducks" without such countermeasures. She has called the threat of downing a civilian airliner with hundreds of passengers by such a missile "a disaster waiting to happen."

MANPAD threat skeptics also argue even if such a missile knocked out one of an airliner's engines, it could still fly and safely land using its other ones.

However, no one has carried out any series of tests by actually shooting MANPADs into flying but unmanned airliners to see what would happen. Since aviation fuel is obviously exceptionally combustible and exploding one engine on airliner could certainly carry threat of the fire spreading rapidly. Also, the shock of the explosion and the loss of one engine would carry the additional risk of knocking the plane out of control and causing it to crash.

Indeed, beyond bureaucratic complacency, it is hard to see why equipping the U.S. civilian airliner fleet with MANPAD defenses would take as long as the homeland security report to Congress envisages.

As we have noted in previous BMD Focus columns, the technology involved is a mature, long-established one that has been around for well over a quarter-century. It does not require the development of laser or interceptor rocket systems that can destroy MANPADs in flight. It only requires that the heat-seeking sensors on the MANPADs be confused. Laser rays fired from a revolving turret, such as Northrop Grumman's Guardian system would use, could do that.

Even equipping civilian airliners with flares that emit heat when ignited could serve as a back-up measure to confuse the relatively low-tech, heat-seeking MANPADs.

The American people discovered on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 that complacency is no effective defense and neither is the argument that because something has never happened in the past, it cannot happen in the future. The potential threat posed by MANPADs to U.S. civilian airliners is real.

Unfortunately, Bush administration policymakers have yet to exhibit any sense of urgency over it.

Source: United Press International

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