updated 6/14/2005 7:30:02 PM ET 2005-06-14T23:30:02

Raytheon Co. said Tuesday it has developed a high-powered microwave beam to defend airliners from missiles and is urging the U.S. government to deploy it at major airports to foil possible terrorist attacks.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has already acknowledged concerns about the potential for attacks on jets from shoulder-fired missile launchers. In August, it awarded two $45 million contracts to Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp. and Britain’s BAE Systems PLC to develop anti-missile lasers for commercial planes.

But Raytheon, a Waltham, Mass.-based defense electronics supplier, argued in a presentation at the Paris Air Show that its ground-based system is more cost-effective and, unlike the on-board alternatives, already tested in the field.

Its technology, called “Vigilant Eagle,” uses a network of infrared sensors to set up a “protective dome” around an airport. When a surface-to-air missile is detected, a billboard-sized microwave gun blasts the missile with a high-energy microwave beam, confusing its guidance system and preventing it from finding its target.

Slideshow: Paris Air Show Mike Booen, vice president for directed energy weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems, said a prototype had “proven effective” in tests but declined to give a success rate.

Tucson, Arizona-based Raytheon Missile Systems has also offered to carry out further trials in the United States or at Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport — where a DHL freighter made an emergency landing last year after being struck by a shoulder-launched missile.

In 2002, two missiles narrowly missed an Israeli charter plane carrying 271 people after takeoff from Mombasa, Kenya. U.S. airports including Los Angeles have since tightened security in response to the threat posed by portable missile launchers, which are readily available for as little as $2,000 on the black market, police say.

Raytheon argues that 70 percent of U.S. inbound and outbound flights could be protected by equipping the busiest 30 domestic airports, at a cost of $25 million each.

By contrast, Northrop Grumman says the cost of its on-board system will work out to less than $1 million per plane — although both Raytheon and Rand Corp., the defense research group, say the figure could be considerably higher.

The Department of Homeland Security said it does not rule out the eventual deployment of a ground-based system if it were to prove more effective.

“We are open to all technological alternatives,” said spokesman Donald Tighe.

But Jack Pledger, Northrop’s director of infrared counter measures, said deploying a ground-based system to the biggest airports would simply invite attacks at smaller ones as well as leave U.S. flights exposed overseas.

“The money spent on protecting those few bases just drives the threat to another place that is unprotected,” Pledger said.

Pledger, who was also speaking at the air show in the northern Paris suburb of Le Bourget, said Northrop’s prototype system will be tested in a Federal Express MD-11 and a Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 in coming months. The company hopes to obtain certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration by the end of the year.

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