[Archive Home][Date Prev][Date Next][Index]
"Missiles may be next big threat to U.S. airliners"
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Missiles may be next big threat to U.S. airliners
By Tim McLaughlin
THE ST. LOUIS (MO) POST-DISPATCH
The nation's airline industry is a shoulder-launched missile attack away
from plunging into a financial tailspin, one that could trigger $1
trillion-plus in financial losses in this country.
Five years after the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. passenger
jets still have no response to a shoulder-launched missile that can be
purchased on the black market for as little as $5,000 and can hit a target
more than a mile away. If beefed-up airline security continues to keep
terrorists and their bombs off commercial flights, shoulder-launched missile
attacks pose a likely alternative, experts say.
"Terrorists are a lot like electricity: They take the path of least
resistance," said Jack Pledger, an executive at defense contractor Northrop
Grumman Corp. "Instead of working out elaborate methods, terrorists go to
the next-easiest thing. If you take out these easy things, you drive them to
using" a shoulder-launched missile.
Pledger is director of business development for Northrop Grumman's
infrared-countermeasure program, which is testing a system that disrupts a
shoulder-launched missile's guidance system. The cost of the system would be
less than $1 million for each plane if Northrop were to receive enough
orders to warrant high-rate production.
But the U.S. government and the airline industry are not ready to spend the
billions of dollars it would take to equip passenger jets with anti-missile
systems. And even if an initiative started today, it would take several
years to equip the several thousand passenger jets operated by U.S.
The unaddressed threat underscores the physical and financial vulnerability
of U.S. airlines, despite massive efforts by the government and industry to
prevent hijackings and scary episodes like the thwarted plot in Great
Britain that authorities said targeted U.S.-bound commercial flights with
Last year, a study by think tank RAND Corp. warned that as measures are
taken to preclude 9/11-style attacks - including better screening of
passengers and luggage - groups like al-Qaida might resort to
shoulder-launched missiles because of the obvious vulnerability.
Charles V. Pena, director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute,
wrote in a study last year that even though no U.S. airliner has been
attacked by a missile, "The question may well be when, not if, such an
attack will happen.
"The harsh reality is that ground security to defend against (shoulder-fired
missiles) is nearly impossible," Pena said.
A missile attack on a passenger jet would produce the same spectacular
result that al-Qaida plotters sought recently in Great Britain. Authorities
there say they foiled plans to blow up U.S.-bound planes with liquid
explosives smuggled in drink bottles.
A fragile industry
The airline industry isn't in financial position to afford anti-missile
systems. Roiled by sky-high prices for fuel, bankruptcy filings and
debt-laden balance sheets, the industry remains fragile. Problems aside, the
Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major U.S. carriers, says
there's no better time to fly than now.
Pledger said the industry is waiting for Congress to fund the sort of
anti-missile system being tested by Northrop Grumman.
"There's not really a market" from commercial airlines, Pledger said. "The
carriers are interested in the systems, but they see the protection as a
It would cost an estimated $11 billion to equip 6,800 U.S. commercial jets
with anti-missile systems, not including annual operating costs of more than
$2 billion, according to government estimates.
But that might be a bargain when you consider the financial reverberations
that shook the U.S. after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the
A Milken Institute study estimated the U.S. lost $47 billion in economic
output in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In addition, the loss of
stock market wealth was more than $1.7 trillion after the first week of
trading following the attacks, the study estimated.
Since 1978, there have been about three dozen shoulder-fired missile attacks
on commercial aircraft. All but one happened in combat zones. In 2002, an
Israeli passenger jet was shot at with shoulder-fired missiles in Mombasa,
Kenya. No one was hurt.
These missiles, numbering up to an estimated 750,000 in military arsenals
and the black market worldwide, can be fired by one person with little
training. Many of them track the heat of a jet's engine exhaust. But more
sophisticated missiles use guidance systems that can evade jammers and
flares, Pledger said.
Northrop's Guardian aircraft protection system - a pod mounted on the belly
of a plane - uses a laser to disrupt a shoulder-fired missile's guidance
system. The company recently received a $55.4 million contract from the
Homeland Security Department to complete production on 12 anti-missile
"The market for this is solely driven by government activity," Pledger said.
Once installed, the anti-missile pods can be swapped between planes in about
nine minutes, he said.
Analysts at CreditSights Inc., an independent debt-research firm, recently
commented in a research report that one would have thought an airline
calamity would have happened by now, given holes in a security net for
35,000 commercial aircraft flying around the world.
"It's always the little items that cause the troubles," CreditSights
analysts said. "First it was the box cutters and a rule that pilots obey
hijackers. Up until 2001, (hijackers) always wanted to land somewhere.
"Now it is jars of Old Spice, Chanel and Listerine that might contain
chemical ingredients for an explosive," the analysts said. "Airline (stocks)
were always a hair trigger away from losing their luster - whether that
trigger was terrorist attacks, oil prices, the Middle East, Iran, North
Korea or Taiwan."
Do you have an opinion about this story?
Share it with other readers in our CAA Discussion Forums
Fair Use Notice
This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of political, human rights, economic, democracy and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.
If you have any queries regarding this issue, please Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org