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DHS to look at alternatives to defend jets from missiles

So far program has been aimed at adapting military technology, but a new solicitation indicates DHS is expanding its options.

The Homeland Security Department is looking into alternative systems to protect commercial airliners from the threat of shoulder-fired missiles.

DHS last week released a solicitation for help in evaluating systems to defend against Man Portable Air Defense Systems, or MANPADS. The department already is in the midst of a high-profile counter-MANPADS program that involves adapting military technology for use on commercial jets.

But last week's solicitation specifically seeks other kinds of technology.

The program will evaluate systems that are based on existing component technologies, rather than new ones, the solicitation stated.

"The counter-MANPADS program has been going on for a few years, and it's been all directed towards technologies on airborne platforms," said Larry Orluskie, a DHS spokesman. "What we're looking for here in this announcement is other technologies."

In 2004, Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems each won a $45 million contract to convert infrared, laser-based technology used by the military for use in civilian aircraft. The systems detect an incoming missile and fire a laser-beam into its path, jamming its guidance system.

The firms already have tested those systems in simulated missile attacks, and are beginning a new round of tests to see how they operate on planes flying regular schedules.

The new solicitation said testing "is proceeding well." But critics have questioned whether the systems are viable. They are expensive, costing between $1 million and $3 million per plane, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service. And so far they are not reliable enough for the commercial arena, where planes fly more frequently than in the military.

DHS has set a threshold of 3,000 hours "mean time between failure" - the amount of flying time before the system would need to be serviced. Both contractors say they will meet that threshold by the end of testing, but neither has so far.

The program to adapt military technology would receive $4.9 million under President Bush's proposed fiscal 2007 budget, an amount some have said is too little.

The department anticipates $7 million in funding for the effort to evaluate alternative counter-MANPAD technologies, according to the solicitation. DHS could issue up to four contracts, each lasting 18 months or less.

The technology - based on the ground, on the plane or a hybrid of the two - should be able to defeat two or more incoming missiles 90 percent of the time, without interfering with other ground- or plane-based systems, the solicitation said.

The analysis of ground-based systems will be limited to the airports in Denver; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Newark, N.J.; San Diego; and the Washington National Airport.

According to the CRS report, 5,000 to 15,000 shoulder-fired missiles are in the hands of terrorists worldwide. Since 1980, 35 civilian aircraft have come under attack from such weapons, the report said.