By Brock N. Meeks Chief Washington correspondent
msnbc.com
updated 1/6/2004 6:35:19 PM ET 2004-01-06T23:35:19

The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday a two-year project aimed at adapting military-style anti-missile technology for use by commercial aviation in an effort to thwart the growing possibility of a terrorist strike using shoulder-launched missiles.

DHS Undersecretary Asa Hutchison stressed that Tuesday’s announcement was not the result of any imminent threat.  U.S. intelligence agencies have “no evidence of a specific credible threat to commercial aircraft in the United States from [shoulder -ired missiles] at this time,” Hutchison said.

Initially, three companies — BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and United Airlines — will vie for the final contracts under the $120 million project that will attempt to “re-engineer” proven military anti-missile technology for civilian use, said Charles McQueary, DHS undersecretary for science and technology.

“Over 700,000 Man Portable Air Defense Systems [MANPADS] are thought to have been produced in the past thirty years,” says a Center for Defense Information white paper on the issue.  “These shoulder-launched missiles have been used in many conflicts against both military and civilian targets and are considered to be readily accessible and fairly cheap in the black market,” CDI says.

In November of last year a DHL cargo plane heading out of Baghdad, Iraq, was hit by a shoulder-fired missile.  The plane was damaged and had to turn back.  No one was injured, but the high-visibility attack fueled the calls in the United States for an answer to what Hutchison said Tuesday is “a worldwide threat.”

All smoke, no mirrors
The project is still in the preliminary stages, said DHS Assistant Secretary Penrose Albright.  The three companies initially chosen to participate are not yet under contract to manufacture anything, Albright said.  Each company will receive $2 million and have six months to “produce a plan to adapt military missile detection and countermeasure technologies for commercial aircraft use,” according to a DHS fact sheet.

One or two of the initial proposals will then be chosen for prototype development, DHS said; the prototype testing phase could last up to 18 months. 

DHS decided early on against directly “bolting on” military technology to commercial aircraft, Albright said Tuesday. For one reason, military anti-missile technology poses risks to populated areas that aren’t a concern in a war zone.  For example, flare-based anti-missile systems, in which red-hot flares are ejected from a plane in hopes a heat-seeking missile will be tricked into chasing the flares, could cause buildings to catch fire when they eventually fall to earth.  Second, military technology is prohibitively expensive, given the extensive maintenance it requires. 

DHS wants technology that can be easily maintained at airports large and small and poses little risk to the surrounding areas, Albright said.

Who pays what when
There is no guarantee that any technology developed during the project would be deployed, even if the technology ultimately proves successful. There are no estimates of what such a technology would cost and who might pay for it, government officials acknowledged  Tuesday.

“One of the main purposes of this two-year program is in fact to put some facts on the table as to what this system actually might cost, both in terms of acquisition cost and very, very importantly in terms of the operation and support cost,” Albright said.  It’s not only the “widget, or actual hardware” that is a concern, Albright said, “We’re also interested in what the overall cost of ownership of this technology would be.”

Albright said several times Tuesday that “it would be wrong to speculate on the total cost [of the project] and in fact, on who would pay for what parts of the effort, until we’ve gotten those kinds of facts on the table.”

Early last year a bill was introduced in the Senate that would require anti-missile technology to be installed on all commercial aircraft.  According to the bill, installing such systems would cost between $1 million and $1.5 million for each plane.

And even if such technology is successfully developed and deployed, it would only be useful in deterring today’s technology.  Albright acknowledged that future weapon systems would, at some point, need to be addressed, too.

“It is a cat-and-mouse game,” Albright said.  “You deploy what you can today to meet the threat that exists today … and once you’re there you have to keep your eye on how the threat is evolving and make sure you have science and technology programs in place to meet those threats should they materialize.”

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