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U.S. Agencies Considering Ways to Protect Airliners from Missiles

Aerospace Daily

December 16, 2002

U.S. government agencies are seeking ways to protect commercial airliners from attack by shoulder-fired missiles, sources told The DAILY.

A three-day closed meeting on the subject in Washington wrapped up Dec. 13, but the findings weren't immediately known. If it's ultimately decided to put electronic warfare defenses on airliners, however, the government probably would have to foot the bill, according to two sources familiar with the meeting.

The cost might be $1 billion.

Representatives of a number of agencies - including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation, and the Departments of State and Defense - are said to have met at the FBI's Hoover Building in a classified session that began on Dec. 11.

Industry officials apparently weren't involved. The meeting was prompted by a shoulder-fired missile attack on an Israeli airliner as it departed Mombasa airport in Kenya on Nov. 28. Two Russian-designed, heat-seeking SA-7s missed their target, an Arkia Israeli Airlines Boeing 757 headed for Tel Aviv. An Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa was bombed at about the same time, killing 16, including the three attackers.

President Bush has indicated the attacks were carried out by al Qaeda, prompting concerns that U.S. airliners could become targets of shoulder-fired missiles. Airlines and the government have known for years that this could be a problem, sources said Dec. 13. They also said the airlines have resisted coming up with answers because they didn't want to scare passengers, and because of the potentially high cost.

The heads of major U.S. airlines met with Department of Transportation Officials last month to discuss the threat, but the Air Transport Association said its members have no formal plans to deal with potential missile attacks, Aerospace Daily affiliate Aviation Daily reported.

Conclusions of the Hoover Building meeting may go to the White House, which would decide how to proceed, sources said. BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are producing devices for the military that could be used on commercial airliners.

BAE Systems' Information & Electronic Warfare Systems (IEWS) unit, Nashua, N.H., said in response to a query that it "provides a range of electronic warfare and infrared self-protection systems principally for military ships, ground vehicles, large helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft." It said its Matador infrared countermeasures (IRCM) system "is designed for protecting small business jets and large [commercial] jet aircraft."

Northrop Grumman is beginning to produce the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure (LAIRCM) system for the Air Force. It would be used on such transports as the C-17 and C-130.

It also leads a team - including BAE Systems and Boeing - that for about two years has been producing the AN/AAQ-24(v) Nemesis Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) system for C-130s and helicopters of the U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence.

Bob Del Boca, vice president of IRCM programs at Northrop Grumman's Defensive Systems Division, Rolling Meadows, Ill., said in a telephone interview that this system also will be installed on the Australia's Wedgetail early warning and control aircraft, based on the Boeing 737-700 and slated to become operational in about 2006. "So," he said, "we do have installs that are on ... aircraft" equivalent to airliners.

DIRCM for SOCOM and the MOD uses lamp technology to jam the guidance system of a heat-seeking missile, while DIRCM for Wedgetail uses a laser. When DIRCM was designed in the mid-1990s, it was designed for upgrades, such as laser technology.

Not cheap

Del Boca declined to "go the whole route of being able to discuss what we could do" to assist the airlines, but he said DIRCM would be a candidate. "I think you pretty much come down to a system that would be this type of system, and we're in production," he said. But, "We'd look at it with the government, we'd look at it with the airlines to assess the detailed appropriateness of it."

Cost of such installations, he said, initially could be about $2 million per aircraft. He added, however, that Northrop Grumman is studying the issue and it wouldn't be "at that $2 million price forever. We can get the price down significantly in the developments that we're doing ... we'd like to get it down to $1 [million] or less. ..." Even $1 million per aircraft, however, may not be feasible for airlines, given their already difficult financial straits, the sources said.

They added that multi-band laser technology, just coming along, could be helpful for such applications because it would mean smaller heads projecting into the airflow, meaning less drag and therefore less effect on fuel costs. But, they said, several installations per aircraft may be needed to provide 360-degree coverage.

Airlines could put such systems only on planes operating in potentially dangerous areas, they said, but this would cut flexibility, and therefore increase cost.

- Rich Tuttle


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