Congress OKs funds to fortify planes against attack

Congress has approved $110 million in fiscal 2006 for the Homeland Security Department to fortify the underbellies of commercial airplanes against shoulder-fired missiles, despite reservations from House lawmakers.

Lawmakers in September matched the department's request of $110 million in its fiscal 2006 spending measure, which is $49 million more than last year's enacted level, to complete the program next year and begin installing the devices. But House lawmakers said preliminary results of the program "are not entirely encouraging."

The House Appropriations Committee said in its report on the department's spending bill that the "resulting technologies will not be sufficiently able to meet the challenges of commercial application at a cost that is economically feasible. The committee is also aware of emerging technologies that may be simpler and more cost effective but are far from fully developed."

House lawmakers directed the department to spend $10 million of the $110 million on alternative technologies. But House and Senate lawmakers negotiating the final bill in September deleted the language. President Bush signed the final spending bill into law last month.

The department last week finished the second phase of the initiative, successfully testing two rival companies' technology against shoulder-fired missiles known as man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS. The department initiated the counter-MANPADS program in 2003 after repeated calls from lawmakers to protect commercial airplanes from the prolific weapons.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that more than 800,000 shoulder-fired missiles exist worldwide, with 27 terrorist groups known to possess them.

Shoulder-fired missiles are relatively cheap to purchase, at $25,000 to $80,000 each. They also take only seconds to prepare, require minimal training and have a flight time of three to 10 seconds. The missiles are most effective at 10,000 to 15,000 feet, when airplanes are taking off or landing and are at their most vulnerable altitude.

Lawmakers over the last two years have continued to write legislation demanding that the department place the counter measures on commercial airplanes, but Congress has yet to approve any measures. Florida Republican John Mica, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Aviation Subcommittee, authored legislation, H.R. 2905, to require the installation of counter-missile technology on the Airbus A380 within two years of certification of the technology.

"This legislation is the next logical step to protect commercial aviation from the threat posed by shoulder-fired missiles." Mica said in a statement. "When you launch a new aircraft that can carry the population of a small village, it must require -- at a minimum -- a missile-defense system as standard operating equipment." The bill is pending before his subcommittee.

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