By Mimi Hall, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — Nearly three years after the government began
$100 million worth of tests on lasers that could thwart
missiles aimed at planes, the Homeland Security Department
says the systems are too fragile and expensive to put on
And despite concerns that a terrorist
armed with a shoulder-fired missile could fire on a jet carrying
Americans, Homeland Security spokesman Christopher Kelly says it
will be 18 more months before analysts determine whether the
defense systems can be made to last and installed without a
hefty price tag.
Tests show the systems, now used on some
military planes, break down after 300-to-400 hours of use, a
failure rate that would cause chaos in the aviation system if
planes had to be constantly taken out of service to be repaired.
Officials say they need to last 10 times longer to be used in
The department is also preparing to spend
$10 million to test other systems, including some that could be
set up around airports to protect against a terrorist missile.
Some members of Congress say they are
frustrated by the department's slow pace in coming up with a
"Any two-bit terrorist can buy a
shoulder-fired missile for $5,000 and fire it tomorrow at a
plane," says Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., an authority on the
issue in Congress. "More than 750,000 of these (missiles) are
proliferating around the world in the hands of 27 separate
terrorist organizations, and we're still studying the complexity
of the problem."
For the new round of tests, Raytheon is
proposing a ground-based system of infrared sensors and
high-powered microwave antennae that could detect and divert
missiles away from planes.
"It builds a dome of protection around an
airport," says Raytheon's Michael Booen. The systems cost about
$25 million per airport, significantly less than the expense of
outfitting planes with laser systems. It could cost more than $6
billion to install lasers on all 6,800 U.S. aircraft.
Homeland Security is expected to announce
by the end of the month whether Raytheon's ground-based system
will be among the handful of new systems it will test over the
next year and a half.
Although no U.S. passenger plane has been
shot at with a shoulder-fired missile, the inexpensive, widely
available missiles have been used against passenger and cargo
planes abroad. Even an attempted shooting down of a U.S. plane
could have a devastating effect on the long-troubled airline
industry and the U.S. economy.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the
House Aviation Subcommittee, said Congress isn't willing to
spend the money or force the airline industry to pay.
"In a time of tight budgets both for the
government and the airlines, it's very difficult," Mica says.
"It's going to take an aircraft being brought down, and then it
will be required."
Although the Homeland Security Department
says there is no immediate or credible threat against U.S.
airlines, it's "only a matter of time" before a terrorist armed
with a missile aims it at a U.S. jet here or overseas, Mica
Despite the ongoing technical problems,
he says the systems should be "standard operating equipment."
Israel says airlines should be required
to pay the $1 million per plane to at least begin installing the
systems on planes as they're being built. "That's what they're
spending on the new in-flight video systems," Israel says. "I
love being entertained, but I'd rather be safe."