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Missile Defense Is Urged for Civilian Airliners

Lawmakers, fearing portable antiaircraft weapons could be used by terrorists to shoot down flights, want jamming systems installed on much of U.S. commercial fleet. Cost could hit $1 million a plane.

March 21, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Calling portable antiaircraft missiles a "very serious" threat to travelers, key lawmakers said Thursday the government must quickly install jamming equipment on civilian airliners.

"We can't afford not to act," said Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House aviation subcommittee. "It is a national security issue." Mica and Rep. Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, vowed to put legislation on President Bush's desk this year.

The two spoke after listening to CIA and Department of Defense analysts at a closed hearing. If the legislation passes, tourists and business travelers could benefit from the same kind of technology that protects presidents flying on Air Force One.

The threat from terrorists with shoulder-fired missiles came into sharp focus in November after a group linked to Al Qaeda tried unsuccessfully to shoot down an Israeli jet over Kenya.

In the United States, authorities are "not aware of any credible, specific intelligence" indicating a plot to use portable missiles, said James Loy, chief of the Transportation Security Administration.

Nonetheless, Loy's agency has begun an extensive effort to reduce the risk of attacks at top airports, including Los Angeles International. The Bush administration is trying to enlist governments to help rein in a lucrative international trade in the weapons.

Mica and DeFazio said focusing on airports and diplomacy is only a partial answer. Equipping a significant share of the nation's 7,000 commercial aircraft with countermeasures would make it much harder for an attack to succeed. But the price tag would be steep -- $1 million or more per plane.

"There's going to be some sticker shock," Mica said.

DeFazio said the government could adopt the same strategy with antimissile systems that it uses with air marshals. While there are not enough marshals to cover every flight, enough are assigned to provide a reasonable deterrent.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has called for equipping all civilian aircraft with antimissile defenses, but key Senate committee leaders have stopped short of endorsing the idea.

Shoulder-fired missiles date to the Vietnam War and were originally intended as defensive weapons for ground troops. Officially known as Man Portable Air Defense Systems, they are small, lightweight and relatively easy to operate. They are guided to their target by a heat-seeking sensor that locks in on an engine's exhaust.

There are an estimated 500,000 of the portable missiles, most in the hands of governments. But about 27 guerrilla and terrorist groups also are believed to have them. The missiles have a range of about four miles and can hit aircraft as high as 15,000 feet.

Since 1978, there have been 35 attempts worldwide to shoot down civilian planes with shoulder-fired missiles, leading to the destruction of 24 aircraft and the loss of more than 500 lives, Loy said. Most of the attacks have taken place in war zones, and most of the successful ones involved propeller planes, which are slower than jets.

One option for protecting airliners may involve adapting technology already produced for the military. A major defense contractor has designed a laser-based jamming system to shield military airplanes, and is proposing to install a version on about 300 civilian airliners flying high-risk international routes.

The device, built by Northrop Grumman Corp., interferes with a missile's guidance system and causes it to veer off course. Housed in a small pod underneath the aircraft, it requires no operation by the pilot.

Northrop Grumman wants to charge the government $655 million for equipping 300 planes, more than $2 million apiece. But the company said it can lower the price to about $1 million per plane for 3,000 aircraft.

Robert DelBoca, a Northrop Grumman executive responsible for the antimissile system, said civilian jets are vulnerable while landing and taking off in a roughly 300-square-mile area around an airport.

The zone is a rectangle over an airport's takeoff and landing routes that is about six miles wide, 50 miles long and 10,000 to 15,000 feet high.

Loy said the TSA has created computerized "vulnerability maps" of all the country's major airports. "In some cases, those maps cover hundreds of square miles of territory that potentially would need to be defended," he said.

The agency has sent teams to 22 airports to coordinate defensive plans against missile attacks.

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