Nov. 28, 2002, was a deadly day in Kenya. At
about 8:30 in the morning, three suicide bombers rammed their truck
through the gate of the Paradise Hotel in Malindi, an Israeli-owned
resort north of the city of Mombasa. The truck exploded in the lobby as
Israeli tourists were checking in and 13 were killed.
At the same time, two Russian-made Strela-7
shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missiles fired from a field near the
Mombasa airport arced toward a Boeing 757 that had just taken off. The
Israeli pilot, Rafi Marek, felt a little bump and saw two smoke trails
behind him—but they subsequently disappeared. Assured that the plane
was operating properly, he continued on to his destination of Tel Aviv.
As it happened, the Strelas were old and
failed to reach their target. But had the missiles struck the aircraft,
another 261 people would have died.
Benjamin Netanyahu, then Israeli foreign
minister, had a grim message for the world: “Today they fired missiles
at Israeli planes, tomorrow they’ll fire missiles at US planes, British
planes, planes from every state.”
It’s a message the restof the world has heard.
The United States recognizes the threat posed
by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS)—but getting the
government and the commercial airline industry to move has proven
complex and slow.
In Congress, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.),
chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on
Aviation, introduced the Commercial Aviation MANPADS Defense Act of
2004 (HR 4056) in March out of concern that the federal government
would not take definitive steps to defeat MANPADS. “We need to do all
we can to get these weapons out of the hands of those who intend to do
us harm,” Mica declared during a discussion of the bill on April 29.
The bill requires the Federal Aviation
Administration (FAA) to develop a certification process for the safety
of missile defense systems being considered for commercial aircraft by
the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). It also requires the US
government to do all it can to reduce the threat of MANPADS both by
working with other governments and by reducing or eliminating stocks of
Mica’s committee approved the bill in May.
However, it has yet to move in the House International Relations
Committee, to which it had also been referred.
Regardless of congressional inaction, the
administration is moving on the international front. John R. Bolton,
undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security,
testified before the House International Relations Committee on March
30 that the administration was working with other nations to reduce the
threat of MANPADS.
“At the June 2003 G-8 Evian Summit, leaders
agreed to a US-initiated MANPADS Action Plan that includes providing
assistance and technical expertise for destroying excess MANPADS;
adopting stringent national controls on production of and export of
MANPADS and their essential components; banning transfers to non-state
actors; exchanging information on uncooperative countries and entities;
and examining for new MANPADS the feasibility of adding specific
technical performance or launch-control features that preclude their
unauthorized use,” Bolton said.
He also described diplomatic efforts to
control MANPADS. The department has participated in bilateral talks
with nations that have too many MANPADS and too few controls on them.
Programs such as the Non-Proliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining and
Related Programs (NADR) and Small Arms and Light Weapons Destruction
efforts fund the destruction of MANPADS. Although some countries
participating in these destruction programs have requested anonymity,
Bolton highlighted for Congress some successes, including 7,922 MANPADS
destroyed across eight countries in Africa, Eastern Europe and Latin
American since the start of 2003.
The technological response
In October 2003, DHS established a special
program office within its Science and Technology Directorate to deal
with the threat of MANPADS. The office begins an 18-month study of the
problem this summer.
The DHS Counter-MANPADS Special Program
Office contracted three companies to explore adapting anti-MANPADS
military technology for commercial use in a competitive bid awarded in
January. The companies are BAE Systems Information & Electronic
Warfare Systems (IEWS) of Nashua, N.H.; Northrop Grumman Defensive
Systems Division in Rolling Meadows, Ill.; and United Airlines Inc.,
headquartered in Chicago.
The office has appropriated $60 million in fiscal 2004 and requested another $60 millionin fiscal 2005 to fund this effort.
DHS said it intends to implement a
counter-MANPADS program at minimal cost to the airline industry.
Industry experts, however, estimate missile defense systems will cost
about $1 million per airplane. The total cost for retrofitting all
existing commercial aircraft would run somewhere between $50 billion
and $160 billion, according to the Air Transport Association, a range
that includes 20 years of maintenance on the systems.
Phase one of the counter-MANPADS program,
which began in January, involves a thorough analysis of all the issues
involved in transferring the relevant military technology for use in a
commercial aviation environment, according to DHS officials. Each of
the three contractors is receiving $2 million during the first phase.
The second phase includes the development of
prototypes to field actual demonstrations of applicable military or
commercial technologies. DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate
projects that phase two will last between 12 and 18 months, after which
firm recommendations will be made for DHS and Congress to consider. The
Commercial Aviation MANPADS Defense Act requires the FAA to certify the
DHS plan during this phase.
In addition, Steven McHale, deputy director
of the Transportation Security Administration, told a House panel on
May 12 that his agency is studying airport vulnerability.
“TSA is performing airport vulnerability
assessments to identify and map the areas around an airport from which
a MANPADS attack could be initiated and working with surrounding
communities to coordinate the efforts of agencies responsible for
responding to this type of threat,” McHale said.
Arthur Wolk has run an aviation law firm in
Philadelphia for more than 35 years and has been a commercially rated
pilot for about as long. He litigates aircraft crashes for a living—and
he thinks the US government is simply not moving fast enough to defeat
the MANPADS threat. Of all the critics of the government’s efforts, he
is one of the most informed—and vociferous.
“The Israelis have already been installing
these [defensive] devices,” Wolk said. “Everybody knows that the
systems have been out there for years and years in military aircraft to
protect aircraft from MANPADS. Now, does the system work 100 percent of
the time? It does not. Can it work most of the time? The answer is yes.
Many of them are installed in military helicopters, fighters, and
transport airplanes. Air Force One has one. Therefore, the hardware is
in existence today to solve the problem in the short-term. We shouldn’t
need to take 18 months to study the problem some more.
“The government has been going about this for
the last five years or so in the most bizarre fashion that I have ever
seen,” he told HSToday in an interview. “What they did is commission a
study to go around the airports in this country to determine whether or
not the airport perimeters were sufficiently porous so that if somebody
wanted to go onto the airport and bring a MANPAD, they could shoot it
at an airliner.
“What is bizarre about that is that if you
understand the capabilities of a MANPADS, you would realize that you
could be 10 to 15 miles away from the airport, sitting in an SUV, and
shoot the MANPADS through an open roof and bring down an airliner that
was still climbing up to 15,000 feet,” he said. “To commission a study
to determine if MANPADS can be brought into an airport, to me,
demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the capability of that
weapon and the risk that is involved.”
Current and future MANPADS should be equipped
with technology to prevent them from being used indefinitely or with
codes that prevent their use by unauthorized people, in Wolk’s view.
“The bottom line is that they are
sufficiently hazardous and sufficiently numerous that you’ve got to do
something about them and you’ve got to get the guys who are building to
make sure that they are sufficiently tracking them,” Wolk said. “You
could also, quite frankly, build into a MANPADS a GPS transponder so
that they are trackable. All these things are possible if somebody uses
their head and has the incentive to implement such a program.”
In the absence of such a tracking device, Wolk insisted that the supplies of MANPADS to terrorists must be cut off.
“Somebody better get their head in the right
place and get this thing rolling or it’s going to happen,” Wolk warned.
“I truly believe it is going to happen. It’s not going to happen at the
airport perimeter or 3 miles or 5 miles from it. It’s going to be 10
miles from the airport.”
The danger MANPADS represent is clearly
understood. And, in addition to the Israeli experience, the United
States had a close call of its own when, on Nov. 23, 2003, a MANPADS
missile struck an American DHL cargo plane shortly after it took off
from Baghdad airport. Thanks to some extremely skillful flying, the
pilot landed the plane safely despite the hit to one of the engines.
While Congress, the Department of Homeland
Security and industry are all moving in the same direction to eliminate
the MANPADS vulnerability, there’s no question that terrorists will
continue to try to obtain and use MANPADS against civilian airliners as
a cheap, concealable and effective way to wreak maximum havoc with
It’s a race against time between the terrorists and those who would
thwart them. And as every flight rises into the sky, every pilot and
every passenger will have to ask: Which side will win? HST
The origins of MANPADS
The United States was the first to develop a
MANPADS missile, called the Redeye, in the late 1950s. The MANPADS
unaccounted for today consist largely of missiles manufactured by the
former Soviet Union, although the American FIM-92 Stinger also has
turned up on the black market, according to the Federation of American
The Soviet MANPADS include the Strela and the
Igla series. The Soviet Strela-2 and 2M MANPADS are the simplest and
most readily available systems. Both use infrared seekers to target
aircraft by tracking their infrared energy emissions. Simple
countermeasures, such as flares, could draw these missiles away and
defeat them. The Strela-2 can only target aircraft below 1,500 meters,
while the Strela-2M can hit targets below 2,300 meters at a distance of
more than 4 km. The Strela MANPADS possess a 1.17 kg warhead that is
triggered by impact with the aircraft.
The Soviet Strela-3, an improved model, can
hit targets flying up to 3,000 meters. It has a better infrared seeker
that is notas easily fooled by flares and a 1.8 kg warhead.
Most commercial aircraft fly as high as 9,000
meters (30,000 feet) above sea level, putting them out of range of
portable missiles. Therefore, terrorists would most likely use MANPADS
against aircraft during landing or takeoff.
The Soviet Igla series carry smaller warheads
than the Strela series, but they feature both an impact and a proximity
fuse, enabling them to detonate without actually hitting the target
aircraft. The infrared seekers on this series can distinguish between
flares and the aircraft. They can reach targets up to 3,500 meters. The
American Stinger is very similar to the Igla missiles, according to the
Federation of American Scientists. It is faster, however, capable of
reaching speeds up to Mach 2.2.
Jane’s Intelligence Review estimates that
about 500,000 MANPADS exist around the world, and that thousands of
these are available to terrorists.
The MANPADS contenders
Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman director of infrared countermeasures business development, told HSToday
that the company believes its Directed Infrared Countermeasure (DIRCM)
multi-band laser-directed system represents the best option for
“Our infrared countermeasure comes in a small
pod that is easily attached to commercial aircraft,” Pledger said. “It
doesn’t require an aircraft to be out of service for an extended
period. It also doesn’t require holes to be cut in a plane for internal
installation. The system is powerful enough to protect a large Boeing
747 but small enough for the Boeing 737.”
The military form of the system is “quite
different” from the envisioned commercial form, Pledger said. The
military version has undergone rigorous testing on missile range
systems, where it defeated over 100 MANPADS missiles fired at it.
Northrop Grumman has installed the system on 22 different types of
aircraft, ranging from C-17 jet transport planes with four engines to
C-130 cargo planes to small helicopters.
Pledger argued that the Northrop Grumman
solution is superior to competing systems. It is “completely passive
until it detects a missile. It then directs a beam of infrared energy
into the missile seeker. It’s an environmentally safe, clean approach
to protecting airplanes.”
He rejected flares, a common countermeasure.
They burn from 800 to 2,000 degrees Celsius, which becomes a hazard in
a commercial environment.
“As for broadband infrared jammers, they use
expensive lamps that need to be replaced quite often,” Pledger said of
the BAE Systems solution. “They’re effective only against very early
missiles and then only at the rear hemisphere of an aircraft. The
multi-band laser can defeat early missiles and the most recent ones;
that’s what brought its development about.”
Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), based in
Minneapolis, Minn., has developed components for the United Airlines
system, which uses flare-like decoys that burn very hot very quickly.
Bryce Hallowell, director of communications for ATK, called Pledger’s
criticisms a “red herring.”
“These systems have been tested with these
flares,” Hallowell said. “You can drop them from 100 feet, and they are
going to be cold by the time they hit the tarmac. They burn extremely
fast. They give a signature of burning extremely hot. You want to trick
the missile into thinking that it is going after the most attractive
target in the sky.”
The United Airlines counter-MANPADS system
uses the decoys manufactured by ATK as well as the company’s AN/AAR-47
missile-warning system. Hallowell said the AN/AAR-47 is operational on
about 1,000 military aircraft currently and has successfully defeated
missiles fired at it in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“We can come to the table with a proven
system with a much less expensive price than the competitors with their
systems,” Hallowell said. “When you work with an airline, you learn the
airlines’ concerns. The airlines’ concerns are to operate efficiently.
It is much easier to do that if your system is embedded into the
fuselage of the aircraft rather than hanging down off the aircraft.”
Hallowell explained that the ATK system is
mounted flush to the side of the aircraft, leaving no hanging pods. A
pod such as the one that hangs off he bottom of the aircraft on the
DIRCM systems would create aerodynamic drag, causing an airliner to
burn extra fuel.
A spokesperson for BAE Systems declined to
comment on the company’s counter-MANPADS technology for this article.
BAE Systems first entered the business of countering missiles with the
U.S. Navy’s Tactical Aircraft Directable Infrared Countermeasures
(TADIRCM) system, designed to defeat surface-to-air and air-to-air
missiles launched against Navy aircraft with an infrared jamming device.
The company has also developed a system called
the Defense Avionics Receiver Transmitter (DART), which empowered the
UK Fast Jet Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) Laser System.
DART uses lasers to jam the guidance systems of incoming missiles.
BAE’s next-generation missile countermeasure technology is called the
Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasure (ATIRCM) system. Public
information released by BAE Systems suggests its homeland security
solution is based on this technology, which also jams the guidance
systems of incoming missiles.