Could your airline fend off a missile?
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Online



Some airlines want it, some can't afford it and some may already have it - the technology to defeat a heat-seeking missile is complex, costly and controversial. But as terrorists' tactics change, it could be a life-saver.

1. Shoulder-launched missile fired at airliner by terrorist shortly after take-off
2. Missile warning sensors detect ultraviolet or infrared plume of rocket
3. Pointer/tracker transmitter locks on to missile. Jam head fires laser, which confuses missile and sends it off course
4. Timing mechanism in missile expires causing mid-air explosion
It takes just second to detect and deflect missile

The arrest last week of Briton Hemant Lakhani in the US has reawakened fears that the next time terrorists down an airliner it could be with a missile.

Mr Lakhani has been charged with trying to sell a portable missile to an FBI agent posing as a member of al-Qaeda.

It follows a failed attack last year on an Israeli passenger jet over Kenya with shoulder-launched rockets, and comes at a time when BA has grounded all flights to the east African state and Saudi Arabia.

Such events seem to have opened a new, and deeply disturbing, chapter in terror tactics.

These would seem to be the weapons of choice for the hit-and-run terrorist. They are relatively cheap and can be fired quickly, even from the sunroof of a car parked outside an airport perimeter fence.

Although such weapons have a limited range, passengers jets are vulnerable shortly after take-off and before landing.

What's more, the weapons are available. For example, roughly 400 of the Stinger rockets America supplied to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s are still unaccounted for.

1973: Italians foil Palestinian plan to launch SA-7 missile against El Al plane
1994: IRA launch four mortars from Nissan Micra into Heathrow boundary

So what, if anything, can be done to protect passenger jets from this new threat?

While some military aircraft, particularly smaller ones, are fitted with defense systems to protect against small missiles, most commercial planes are not.

But, in Israel at least, that is about to change. El Al, the national carrier, already has protection systems. Following the attack last November, all other commercial carriers will follow suit.

In some cases, scattering "chaff" - fine filaments of aluminium - is good enough to throw a mid-air missile off target. The tiny strands of metal create a "shadow target" designed to confuse the electromagnetic signals given out by a plane.

But this is of little use against advanced, heat-seeking weapons such as the Igla SA-18, which Mr Lakhani is accused of trying to sell.

These are equipped with an electronic guidance system which pinpoints the heat of an aircraft's engines.

Hazard for those below

Instead of chaff, lighted flares are dropped by an aircraft; their intense heat drawing the missile off course and into a mid-air explosion.

That's fine for the military, but in built-up areas around airports there would inevitably be strong opposition to the use of flares which may be a fire hazard when they land.

A safer, but more costly alternative would be lasers.

Last year the Pentagon agreed to pay $23m to fit laser protection systems to four C-17 military cargo planes - the US equivalent of the British Hercules.

The Israeli jet targeted by terrorists near Mombasa last year
Soon all Israeli airliners will have built-in protection systems

Missile warning sensors, which sit on the fuselage, scan for approaching rockets, looking for the ultraviolet and infrared plume of a missile. Sensors are set to distinguish an aircraft engine from that of a missile, which burns at a much higher temperature.

Once the rocket's trajectory is logged, a "jam head" fixed to the plane fires a high-intensity laser which confuses the warhead, sending it off course.

This all happens in a split second and the system is fully automatic, so demands no intervention by the pilot.

But will airlines, which are already strapped for cash, splash out the $2-3m per plane it costs to install this sort of equipment?

For David Schmieder, a senior research engineer at the Georgia Tech Research Institute, they should be thinking less about stopping missiles and more about limiting the damage they might do.

"These sort of missiles are too small to take out a passenger jet on their own. They aim for the engine, but commercial jets are designed to cope with losing an engine and can fly on just one.

Mujahideen fighters
The Mujahideen were issued with US Stinger missiles

"The problem is in secondary effects - the missile could send shrapnel to puncture a fuel line or gas tank, causing disaster."

Making the fuel tanks inert or toughening components are two possibilities, says Mr Schmieder.

One theory, says expert Jim O'Halloran, of Jane's Land-Based Air Defence, is that some airlines already have this equipment installed, but don't want to alert terrorists and alarm passengers. Some believe this is why the missile attack in Kenya last year failed.

Indeed, British Airways refuses to discuss the issue, fearing it would "compromise security". It would only say it takes "preventative measures against a number of external threats".

Aviation specialist Chris Yates spurns the theory.

"Of all the world's civil aviation fleets, 99.9% do not have these measures in place. If you look at a carrier such as United in America, they're in Chapter 11 insolvency," says Mr Yates.

"They last thing they can afford at this point is to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a security measure they might not even need."

from this link


Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM)

The purpose of the LAIRCM program is to protect large aircraft from man-portable missiles. The LAIRCM system will increase crew-warning time, decrease false alarm rates and automatically counter advanced IR missile systems. The missile warning subsystem will use multiple sensors to provide full spatial coverage. The counter-measures subsystem will use lasers mounted in pointer-tracker turret assemblies. To meet AMC's immediate needs, Phase I of the program will equip 20 A/C (12 C-17 and 8 C-130) with currently available technology as a stop-gap measure. Phase II will develop an advanced multi-spectral missile warning and laser based countermeasures system to increase the affordability and effectiveness of the system for the AMC fleet requirement. This requirement is defined in the multi-command LAIRCM ORD 314-92, validated 3 Aug 98. Dividing the program into two-phases was primarily due to cost and schedule constraints. AMC requires the first C-17 be delivered to the field NLT FY03. AMC plans to procure more systems when funding becomes available. However, initially AMC had funding for only the first twenty (20) aircraft, and did not have the available funding to support a risk reduction effort.


ASC/SMI is in the process of developing the acquisition strategy for Phase I. The acquisition strategy being considered is to contract for the procurement of Group B hardware by an integrating contractor and the integration of that hardware into a LAIRCM suite. The integrating contractor would then provide the LAIRCM Group B suite to the Group A contractor(s) for installation on the specified aircraft.


An initial cadre of personnel has been assigned to the LAIRCM Program. This cadre is located in the Subsystems SPO (ASC/SM), Wright-Patterson AFB, OH. Our office symbol will be ASC/SMI. This Team will be responsible for leading an Air Force/Industry initiative to develop and implement the acquisition strategy for large aircraft IRCM systems in the near-term. It will also serve as the core group for the permanent organization with program management responsibility for the development and implementation of Group A and Group B and risk-reduction activities over the long-term.


The development and proliferation of advanced infrared guided missiles has greatly increased the threat to military and civil aircraft of attack by these low cost antiaircraft missiles. Technology is being developed to counter this threat in form of advance directed laser jammers and associated missile approach warning sensors. Air Force Research Laboratory's Large Aircraft IRCM Advanced Technology Demonstration (LAIRCM ATD) is developing and maturing subsystem and integrated system technologies to counter the ever growing threat from these missiles. The technology development includes advanced concepts such as Closed Loop IRCM that promises a high power laser response to and IR missile engagement with threat adaptable jamming applied to achieve a rapid seeker breaklock.


LAIRCM ATD is an OSD DDR&E Affordability Pilot Program that is pushing for innovation in the design and integration approaches for advanced laser IRCM system to reduce development, production and sustainment cost. The program is also supporting SBIR activity that is addressing affordable missile warning technology using alternative low cost sensors and advanced motion detection algorithms. Opportunity exists for commercialization of IRCM technology for limited application to civil airliners, and VIP aircraft. Installation on US Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) should be considered to protect these aircraft when directed into higher risk areas of the world. Civilian Fleet operation might be considered for special routes where the threat might be high from terrorist or other groups in conflict. The key to affordable IRCM will be found in reducing systems complexity and use of efficient universal integration approaches.



Sources and Resources

from this link

  A Pilot discussion   ASW on MANPADS Defences The LAIRCM Flaw?