Groups differ on countering shoulder-fired missile threat

Airline industry representative, defense contractors square off over what government should do to protect commercial airplanes.

An airline industry representative and Defense Department contractors squared off on Friday over whether the government should protect commercial airplanes against shoulder-fired missiles.

Congress has been pressuring the Homeland Security Department since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to install devices on the underbelly of commercial airplanes to protect against Man-Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS. The department plans to finish testing different technologies next year and make a decision about deploying countermeasures.

"We're going to make a multi-billion mistake if we move" to put countermeasures on airplanes, said John Meenan, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the Air Transport Association, about the debate. "We seem to be on the path to conceivably spending billions of dollars to address one threat."

Meenan argued Congress and the Bush administration must step back from their plans to review other technologies that could combat multiple threats. He dismissed statements from defense contractors that current technologies are inexpensive and easily deployed.

Jack Pledger, a Northrop Grumman representative whose company is participating in the Homeland Security initiative, said its device would cost $1 per passenger for a New York to Los Angeles flight and have a life cycle of 20 years. Mark Slivinski with Raytheon told Congress their alternative technology to put an infrared grid around airports would cost one-tenth of the price tag for loading the devices onto airplanes.

Meenan said ATA estimates the cost at $5 per passenger and the technologies could cost hundreds of billions.

Lawmakers provided $110 million in the recently-enacted fiscal 2006 spending measure for the Homeland Security Department to complete the project. But they also expressed concerns with the initiative, saying preliminary results "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."

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

The missiles are relatively cheap to purchase and 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.

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