MOJAVE — Hoping to spur public support for equipping commercial airplanes with missile defense systems, Northrop Grumman Corp. has unveiled a 6-foot-long canoe-shaped device that would be attached to the belly of an airliner.
The equipment would work by emitting a laser beam that would jam the guidance system of a shoulder-fired missile. Northrop put the device on display last week at Mojave Airport.
The timing of Northrop's public relations event could not have been better. Hours earlier a federal grand jury in Los Angeles indicted two men on charges of conspiring to smuggle as many as 200 shoulder-fired, surface-to-air missiles into the U.S. Both men, naturalized U.S. citizens of Chinese descent living in Los Angeles, allegedly tried to broker the sale of Chinese-made QW-2 missiles to undercover FBI agents.
The case is the second involving covert sales of shoulder-fired missiles. A British arms dealer was convicted this year in New Jersey of attempting to broker a deal to sell 200 Russian surface-to-air missiles to an East African terrorist group he thought would use them to shoot down commercial airliners in the U.S.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 18, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Airliner defense system -- An article in Thursday's Business section about Northrop Grumman Corp. unveiling a missile defense system for commercial aircraft misspelled the last name of the executive vice president for the Air Transport Assn., John Meenan, as John Meanen.
The cases have renewed attention on efforts by the Department of Homeland Security to protect airlines from portable surface-to-air missiles. It also has intensified the debate over the necessity of defensive systems. Domestic airlines, already financially strapped, are balking at moves to equip their jets with the systems, which could cost up to $1 million per plane.
"It's a huge expenditure of resources to deal with one type of threat," said John Meanen, executive vice president for the Air Transport Assn., which represents major airlines.
The Department of Homeland Security has warned of the widespread availability of portable weapons and that terrorists could use them to shoot down jetliners.
"Airplanes approaching LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] are particularly vulnerable because they are flying over mountains" as they descend, said Jack Pledger, head of the Northrop unit that developed the system.
Thus far, no U.S. passenger plane has been downed by a shoulder-fired missile outside of a combat zone. But 35 foreign civilian aircraft, many in war-torn parts of Africa, have been attacked with shoulder-fired missiles, according to the Transportation Security Administration. Of those, two dozen were shot down, killing 640 people.
And terrorists linked with Al Qaeda are believed to have fired two portable surface-to-air missiles that narrowly missed hitting an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Kenya in 2002.
The typical shoulder-held launcher and the small missile were designed by the U.S. in the 1950s and can strike aircraft flying up to 15,000 feet, or at a range of up to three miles. More than 1 million portable missile launchers have been produced worldwide, according to reports.
Concerned by the potential threat to U.S. carriers after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Homeland Security Department began a competition last year to develop a cheaper, commercial variant of missile defense systems used by the military. Century City-based Northrop, and Britain's largest defense contractor, BAE Systems, each received $45-million contracts to develop prototype systems.
However, Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, is pushing for a mandate to get the equipment installed on commercial aircraft that would fly in and out of vulnerable airports. It would be like having an air marshal on board, he said.
Meanwhile, Raytheon Corp. has proposed a ground-based defense system that could be installed at major airports for about $25 million apiece. It would use microwaves to damage a missile's electronic components, disrupting the guidance system.
So last week, Northrop and BAE unveiled their competing systems, which are undergoing preliminary flight tests. Northrop has teamed with Federal Express, which has the device installed on one of its MD-11 cargo planes, while BAE has put its gear on an American Airlines Boeing 767.
Actual live-fire tests are not expected until next year, when the U.S. government will decide whether to pick one or both systems. Live tests will be conducted at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.
Both systems rely on sensors that detect missiles and use a laser to disrupt the missiles' infrared guidance system, which typically lock onto the heat emitted from a jet engine.
The rival systems cost about the same, but differ in how they would be used on aircraft. In the Northrop system, the sensors, electronics and laser are all encased in a portable pod weighing about 430 pounds that can be attached or detached in about 10 minutes, the company said.
Much of BAE's system, however, is designed to be permanently installed into a plane's fuselage, with various components and sensors positioned at different places on an aircraft.
Northrop maintains that its system is easier to maintain, while BAE says its integrated equipment will be more streamlined, increasing fuel efficiency.
Northrop also contends that its defense system has been proven in military use and that simulated tests of the commercial device have been "100% successful."
"We know how to defeat missiles," said John Stanfill, who is leading the commercial development of Northrop's military defense system. "This program is not about that. It's about making it viable for commercial use."
Shares of Northrop closed up 59 cents Wednesday at $56.72.