Democrats revive jet-protection debate

Renewed calls from Democrats to install missile defense systems on commercial airlines have revived the debate on the feasibility of the possibly multibillion-dollar endeavor.

Companies that are searching for a solution to counter shoulder-fired missiles include Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems, which are analyzing the transfer of military technology to civilian aircraft.

It is estimated that almost 500,000 shoulder-fired missiles are in circulation worldwide and that thousands of those are outside any country’s government inventories and control. The solution to defend civilian aircraft — still in development — would bring a hefty price tag: $11 billion just to outfit the entire aircraft fleet and $2.1 billion a year to maintain the defense systems.

Defense against the so-called man-portable defense systems, known as manpads, within the United States is a mission assigned to the Department of Homeland Security. The department has to “develop an effective capability to meet that requirement,” said Paul McHale, assistant secretary for homeland defense at the Pentagon.

And that is no small feat. “There are issues related to the nature of the defense. … There will be public-policy debate with regards to deploying the system,” McHale told The Hill. Even if the technology obstacles can be surmounted, the question remains who will be “responsible to pay the cost of such defensive systems if they are required,” he added.

Last week, Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) reintroduced the Commercial Airline Missile Defense Act, which requires that the installation of countermeasures begin no later than six months after the secretary of homeland security certifies the system has been successfully tested and evaluated. Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) introduced the companion legislation in the House.
“The cost of not doing this is absolutely incalculable,” Boxer said. The legislation states that the federal government would buy the systems and make them available to the airline industry, which would be responsible for installing and operating them.

So far, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its two contractors have focused on how to develop the most viable technology. As part of a pilot program, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman received $45 million each last summer for an 18-month project to adapt already existing military technology for commercial use.  

“Defeating the missile from a commercial aircraft is not difficult for us, and we are going to do a lot of testing,” said Stephen duMont, BAE Systems’ business development director for the counter-manpads program. “What is difficult is the transition of making an economically viable missile defense system for commercial airlines. This is the real challenge.”

The integration of such a countersystem, duMont added, has to be done “in a smart way” so that it does not negatively affect the airline industry, which is already plagued by serious financial woes.

According to duMont, the DHS has a cost requirement of no more than $1 million per system based on 1,000 units delivered. “We are trying to get the cost of our system below that,” he said. However, the cost of frequent maintenance also has to be taken into consideration.

The technology BAE Systems is offering is a directed-infrared countermeasure. “It is a series of sensors, eyeballs around the aircraft, always searching for the characteristic launch energy” coming from shoulder-fired weapons, duMont expained.

Currently, BAE Systems has a contract to outfit all of the Army’s aircraft, including helicopters, with the directed-infrared countermeasure.

For its DHS contract, the company has been working with American Airlines and is planning to begin flight-testing the system on a Boeing 767 at the end of the summer.

Northrop Grumman, meanwhile, also has military customers, such as the Air Force’s C-17 fleet, for its directed-infrared countermeasure. For the DHS counter-manpads program, Northrop Grumman is transforming this countermeasure with a multiband infrared laser jamming system in partnership with Northwest Airlines and Federal Express, said Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman’s director for infrared countermeasure business development. “Taking that [military] technology as a baseline for commercial technology is not easy,” Pledger said.

Even though the next phase of the pilot program has not yet been announced, Pledger forecasts that about 12 aircrafts will be outfitted with the defense systems, built by one or both contractors, and flown for a year for testing. “If there are any changes to be made, we will put them into design before it goes to full-rate production,” Pledger said.

While the defense contractors are focusing on translating military technology into commercial applications, the airline industry is left to question the government’s decision to push ahead with the countersystem.

“At present there is no coherent effort to rank the manpads threat in relation to other risks,” the Air Transport Association (ATA) said in a statement earlier this year. “This is resulting in a significant distortion of resources and focus, with counter-manpads technology development receiving inflated resources and attention while the other threats are underemphasized.”

“The threat from a manpad is slightly bigger than a sniper with a rifle,” said Victoria Samson, a researcher with the Center for Defense Information.

Raytheon, meanwhile, is planning to join the competition to provide a defense system. Raytheon’s solution, called Vigilant Eye, is a ground-based system that uses high power microwave technology to protect commercial aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles. Vigilant Eye is designed to be installed at airports, rather than on individual aircraft.

“What we know of it is that it is significantly different. Those kinds of things ought to be looked at,” said John Meenan, spokesman for the ATA.