Homeland Security launches effort to counter shoulder-fired missile threat

This week the Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate announced a two-year, $100 million program to protect aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles.

Homeland Security outlined its strategy in a Sept. 15 pre-solicitation announcement on FedBizOpps.gov, an Internet portal for government contracting opportunities over $25,000.

The first phase of the program, which is to last six months, will explore the economic, manufacturing and maintenance issues associated with anti-missile devices and their use with commercial aircraft. A second phase, lasting 18 months, will develop and test anti-missile prototypes based on existing technologies.

"This initiative is not intended to develop new technology, but rather to reengineer existing technology from military to commercial aviation use," Homeland Security officials said in a statement issued Sept. 18. Military aircraft generally have jamming equipment and other capabilities for deflecting heat-seeking missiles.

Homeland Security expects to issue a formal solicitation the week of Sept. 22 and will discuss its overall strategy at an industry briefing in Washington the week of Oct. 6. The program will be managed by a special office at Homeland Security, which will work closely with the Defense Department to coordinate efforts between the agencies.

For months, federal officials have worried about intelligence warnings that al Qaeda terrorists plan to use shoulder-fired missiles against commercial aircraft. Last November, terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles attempted to shoot down an Israeli passenger jet filled with tourists as it departed from Mombasa, Kenya.

"The Mombasa incident really electrified the whole thing," said a senior official at Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration. TSA has been conducting vulnerability assessments at airports across the country and is working with state and local police to raise awareness of the threat and educate local officials about what to look for and where to look. "That will be an ongoing effort," the official said.

Commercial aircraft are highly vulnerable to portable missiles. The missiles are cheap and readily available on the international arms market, and many airports are surrounded by industrial areas or rural, wooded areas where terrorists might easily escape detection.

In August, three lost fishermen landed at Kennedy International Airport in New York, where they were able to wander among the runways undetected. The security breach was not discovered until the men approached a security guard and announced themselves. Also in August, the FBI arrested a man trying to sell shoulder-fired missiles to an undercover agent posing as a terrorist.

"It's a threat we're taking very seriously," said the senior TSA official.

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