Homeland Security weighs airliner anti-missile system
The department included airliner protection in a list of several dozen research and development projects for which it is seeking proposals from private industry and told Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Steve Israel, both D-N.Y., that it will ask two companies to build prototypes based on systems now in use to protect military aircraft.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., also is supporting the effort to protect commercial airliners.
While a department spokesman said it is too early to talk about the potential cost and where the money would come from, Schumer said the administration must move quickly before terrorists, who fired a shoulder-launched missile at a commercial jet last fall in Kenya, set their sights on U.S. planes.
"You don't need to be a counterterrorism expert to know that if a group like al Qaeda tried this once, they're going to try it again if we leave our planes unprotected," Schumer told reporters last week. Schumer proposed paying for the project by transferring money from missile-defense research, a move that Republicans said they would oppose.
A spokesman for Israel told CongressDaily the lawmaker would like to see the Homeland Security Department move quickly "before an attack happens." But the mere fact that the department included the issue in its research and development wish list represents a change in the administration's position, the spokesman noted.
In December, when Israel and other legislators first asked President Bush to budget funds for the missile-protection system, "We never got a formal response," the spokesman said. That prompted Israel, Schumer and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., to push for the department to produce a report about the potential threat as part of the supplemental spending bill approved in April.
In a separate report released in February, the Congressional Research Service said thousands of shoulder-fired missiles are unaccounted for, are available at a relatively low price on the black market, and, because of their size, are easy to conceal.
Aircraft are most vulnerable to attack as they take off and land because they are on predictable routes and within the weapon's effective altitude of 15,000 feet. While military aircraft use infrared devices and flares to confuse the heat-seeking missiles, the Pentagon and others say flares would not be useful for commercial jets because of fires and other problems they might cause in populated areas.
According to the CRS report, the costs of installing protective systems would range from $1 million to $3 million for each of the approximately 6,800 commercial airliners in the United States. Schumer estimated the cost at up to $1.5 million per plane, or $7 billion to $10 billion. "The cost is significant, but not prohibitive," said Israel's spokesman.
While some members of Congress have focused heavily on the aircraft protection system, it is one of about 50 projects on the Homeland Security Department's wish list, many of which will probably compete for limited funds in the fiscal 2004 budget. The department can fund about $30 million of research and development projects, with a total of $200 million available from the administration's interagency technical support working group.