Cost and maintenance questions linger for airliner missile defense.
Some of them saw smoke trails and some heard a noise, but the passengers aboard a 2002 charter flight from Mombasa, Kenya, to Tel Aviv, Israel, thought their trip was routine, until they entered Israeli airspace. That's when they were informed by airline staff that the plane had been targeted, unsuccessfully, by two shoulder-fired missiles.
The incident, one of about 35 such attacks on civilian planes since 1980, jump-started efforts in the United States to defend civilian airliners against man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), and 2006 is shaping up to be a pivotal year.
The Homeland Security Department launched its counter-MANPADS initiative in January 2004, and later that year awarded BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman Corp. $45 million each to transform military missile-defense technology for use on commercial jets. Mounted on the belly of a plane, the system detects an incoming missile, tracks it with an infrared camera, and fires a laser to jam its signal, directing the weapon away from the plane where it either self-detonates in the sky (because of an internal timing mechanism) or falls to the ground.
"We have to sense, detect, process and lase, and it has to happen about as quickly as I said those words," says Steve duMont, BAE's business development director of commercial aircraft protection.
Northrop Grumman officials say the technology was superb in tests last year, performing perfectly in 850 simulated missile attacks during 40 hours of flying time aboard a FedEx MD-11 jet. BAE officials have similar praise for their tests aboard an American Airlines Boeing 767.
But DHS has yet to submit to Congress its report on the program's second phase. It was due in April, and some on Capitol Hill are clamoring for it. The analysis might shed light on questions raised by detractors.
Critics, including the Air Transport Association in Washington, have argued the plane-based systems would be too expensive, considering they might not defend airlines against all potential threats. Some studies have estimated the cost at several million dollars per plane, and the unanswered question of who would pay for them lingers ominously. ATA officials say scarce security dollars would be better spent on other areas, such as perimeter protection at airports and international programs to get MANPADS off the black market.
"We don't balk at spending money to improve security and safety," says David A. Castelveter, ATA's vice president of communications. "We balk at spending it inefficiently."
DHS requires a price tag less than $1 million per plane for the technology, and officials for BAE and Northrop Grumman say their systems meet that threshold. Where the technology does not satisfy requirements is maintenance reliability.
Contractors say they knew from the beginning that this would be one of the primary challenges. Maintenance standards for commercial airlines are much higher than for military planes, since civilian jets fly more and operate on tighter schedules -- timetables in which sudden, unscheduled maintenance has a large financial impact.
DHS is asking for a 3,000-hour "mean time between failure," meaning the units can fly for that many hours on average before they need maintenance. The systems now last between 1,200 hours and 1,500 hours, the contractors say.
But both companies plan to exceed the 3,000-hour threshold by the end of the third phase, when the units will fly for more than 10,000 hours aboard in-use air cargo planes. "We want it to be just as reliable as all the other commercial avionics equipment," says Jack Pledger, director of business development for Northrop Grumman's direct infrared countermeasures.
One design change that will improve reliability, Pledger says, makes the unit inactive when not within range of a MANPADS. At cruising altitude the system goes to sleep like a desktop computer and reactivates when it identifies an incoming missile.
Critics have other concerns, notably how to protect the secrecy of the anti-missile technology, originated by the U.S. military, when American planes are at foreign airports. Contractors say they are making provisions to address the issue.
Those associated with the Counter-MANPADS program generally talk glowingly of its progress and dismiss decreased funding as consistent with the transition to the third and final phase. President Bush's fiscal 2007 budget requested $4.8 million for the program, down from almost $109 million the previous year. Some on Capitol Hill and elsewhere say the cut could indicate the administration's enthusiasm for the program is waning.
In an April solicitation, DHS expressed interest in alternatives to the airborne counter-MANPADS units, including ground-based defense systems. They are less expensive and would minimize plane maintenance.
But the alternatives come with their own challenges, such as ineffectiveness for international flights and potential safety implications for communities near airports. Pledger and other supporters of airborne units say ground-based defense systems are not nearly as far along in development.
Ultimately, both types of systems could be used as part of a layered approach, according to observers. Pledger says the plan always was to put counter-MANPADS technology on some, not all, planes. In that case, they would still be a powerful deterrent. "It's like the Federal Air Marshal Service," he says. "You never know which flights they're on."
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