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Mon, May 30, 2005

DHS Testing Missile Defense

Placebo Or Good To Go?

An American Airlines 767 will soon feature a new piece of equipment designed to defend the airliner against missile attacks. This plane and two others will be used by the Department of Homeland Security to test the infrared laser-based systems.

The systems are designed to detect an incoming missile and fire an infrared laser to disable the missile's seeker. Shoulder launched missiles have been used for years all around the world, and the concern is that terrorists could use them to attack airliners. Even if an aircraft lands safely after an attack, the industry could suffer severe repercussions if the public was too afraid to fly.

"We are long overdue for a passenger aircraft to be taken down by a shoulder-launched missile," said Representative John L. Mica, Republican of Florida, according to the New York Times. Mica is in favor of installing the systems. "We have been extremely, extremely lucky."

DHS has invested $120 million so far in the testing and development of these systems, but some are asking if the project is worthwhile. While recognizing that the systems do represent a threat, some security experts believe that the cost of installing the systems could be put to better use. The systems could cost over $1.6 million per plane, and up to $10 billion to install them on commercial jets in service. Accounting for maintenance and other operational costs, the cost balloons up to $40 billion over the next 20 years.

"People have probably assumed that these kinds of weapons would work with much greater certainty," said K. Jack Riley, of the Rand Corporation to the Times. The Rand Corporation is a nonprofit research organization that has studied shoulder-mounted missile threats. "This is not as big a threat as people might think."

A shoulder-launched missile hit a DHL A-300 in November 2004 after the plane took off from Baghdad. Although the plane was severely damaged, the crew managed to land without any injuries.

The AA 767, a Northwest 747 and a FedEx MD-11 will have the devices installed for testing, which will occur without passengers on board. DHS gave money to both Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems for system development. The companies are competing to build the systems that would be used to protect aircraft within roughly 50 miles of the airport.

FMI: www.dhs.gov, www.dsd.es.northropgrumman.com/commercial_aircraft/index.html

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