A Shot in the Dark

Can missile defense systems keep commercial airlines safe?

A gondola will hang 700 feet in the air, suspended by cables. Government officials will shoot missiles at it. This bizarre scene will be the latest in the Homeland Security Department's efforts to develop technology that can defend commercial jets from shoulder-fired missiles. The gondola will replicate the heat signature of a commercial jet and will be outfitted with the two anti-missile systems DHS contractors have been developing. A total of nearly 40 missiles will be fired, two at a time, at the gondola to see how the countermeasures fare. This "live fire" test at the White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico is planned for October, DHS program director Herm Rediess says.

That program is in its final stage, and DHS recently launched two others to defend airliners from shoulder-fired missiles, although significant questions remain about all of them. Rediess and other DHS officials spoke about the programs at a May conference sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association for the department's Science and Technology Directorate, which oversees the research.

Shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, also known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), were developed in the late 1950s to provide ground forces protection from enemy aircraft.

Civilian jets are an easy target for MANPADS: They're relatively slow and fly predictable routes, emit large heat signatures and descend to low altitudes miles away from the airport. In November 2002, two shoulder-fired missiles narrowly missed an Arkia Israeli Airlines flight taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, an event many consider the catalyst that began efforts to defend civilian airliners from the MANPADS threat. The White House convened a task force on the issue less than a month later.

DHS began its counter-MANPADS program in the fall of 2003, hiring Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems to convert military anti-missile technology for use on commercial airliners. The two contractors have been developing parallel on-board systems that identify an incoming missile and shoot a laser to jam its seeker, sending it off target where it would time out and self- detonate or fall to the ground harmlessly. The Northrop system is a pod mounted on the plane's belly; the BAE device includes a sensor and a tracking head on the belly, but much of its technology remains inside the plane.

The department has tested the technology on real planes with simulated missile launches and has begun installing it on cargo planes to see how well it holds up under commercial schedules. Department officials say the counter-MANPADS program is on schedule and will be completed in fiscal 2009. And yet even if the technology works, the systems' future is far from certain. "There has not been a decision to deploy, but we will be ready for it," Rediess said at the conference.

There are three prominent concerns. The first is cost. The government requires a price tag of less than $1 million per unit in quantities of 1,000 units. Both Northrop Grumman and BAE say they can easily meet that, likely even when sold in quantities of hundreds of units. But even a price below $1 million per unit adds up to a lot of money when installed on hundreds or thousands of airplanes, and neither DHS nor Congress has said who would pay for the technology, a key issue for the financially struggling airline industry. "Airlines don't really want to deploy this right now," says James Tuttle, director of the Science and Technology Directorate's explosives division. "They've got their own problems."

The second issue is maintenance. Commercial airlines fly under extremely tight schedules and are accustomed to servicing planes much less frequently than in the military, where the anti-missile technology originated. DHS requirements dictate that the technology go at least 3,000 hours between repairs. So far, the systems have not reached that level of reliability, but both companies say they are confident they will by fiscal 2009. Evaluating and improving reliability is what the current phase of the project is for, says David Denton, the program director for Northrop Grumman. "We're on our way. The only way you know is to get the system into the operational environment. You don't do it in a laboratory."

A third potential sticking point is that counter- MANPAD devices contain sensitive military technology, so international planes using the anti-missile system would need an export license. Homeland Security officials are working with the State Department, but admit it is a thorny issue. "If Congress wants to put these on airplanes, it will be done," Tuttle says. "It's up to Congress to change the laws. And they know what the issues are."

For its part, Congress has asked DHS to evaluate other possibilities to defend civilian airliners. Under one such program, DHS has conducted a suitability study on several defense systems that would not be mounted on planes. Raytheon Co.'s Vigilant Eagle, for example, uses towers around the airport to fire high-power microwave beams at a missile, diverting it from the airplane; Northrop Grumman offers a ground-based system that would fire a laser to divert missiles. DHS officials say both systems need to be tested for their effects on the surrounding area, especially in the event of a false alarm or missed shot.

The department also has begun another program meant to find a lower-cost solution to the missile problem. Named Project Chloe, after DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff's favorite character on the television show 24, the program would put some or all anti-missile devices on a small fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles that would hover around the airport and protect planes from potential missiles during takeoff and landing.

"What we envision is an unmanned vehicle flying 65,000 feet above the airport," said Chloe program manager Kerry Wilson. That height is out of commercial air space.

DHS will begin flight testing a system developed by the Defense Department later this year and is in the process of awarding contracts in connection with a March solicitation. The Predator B or Global Hawk drones would work autonomously and, DHS officials said, ideally they would fly for weeks or months without having to land.

Others, like Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, associate professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas, are less sanguine. Barrett-Gonzalez said Defense Department efforts to counter missiles with high-flying UAVs have failed because clouds-and the water particles inside them-hinder the system's ability to track and shoot at a missile thousands of feet below. He called Chloe "fatally flawed at the outset."

"They'll test it in blue-sky conditions and it will hit its target and everyone will clap, but no end user is going to buy it because they're well aware of the problems," he said at the conference. "Of course, no one wants to hear that at one of these things."

Homeland Security officials note that Project Chloe is classified as a high-risk, high-reward project, meaning that they don't really expect it to work. "There are many challenges; that's why it's [an innovation prototype]," Tuttle said in response to Barrett-Gonzalez's comments. "We know it's high risk. But we want to come up with another solution than putting it on the plane."

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