It could be 20 years before every U.S. passenger airplane is outfitted with a system to protect it from small portable missiles, according to a government report obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
Under a test program, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman developed systems using lasers over the past two years that still do not meet the reliability standards set by the Homeland Security Department, the report said.
"The prototype units are capable of partially meeting the Department of Homeland Security performance requirements," the report said.
The possibility that shoulder-fired missiles could take down commercial airliners in the United States is considered real. The weapons are portable, common and relatively inexpensive.
Although no terrorists are known to have smuggled shoulder-fired missiles into the United States, the FBI arrested two men in New York state as they tried to buy some almost two years ago.
Terrorists linked with al-Qaida are believed to have fired two SA-7 missiles that narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Mombasa, Kenya, in November 2002.
Terror groups have rocket launchers
According to intelligence estimates, at least 24 terrorist organizations have rocket launchers, the report said.
They are also known as "man-portable air defense weapons," or Manpads.
Congress agreed to pay for the development of the systems to protect the planes from such weapons but balked at proposals to spend the billions needed to protect all 6,800 commercial U.S. airliners.
"Ultimately, Congress is going to determine whether it wants to support a wide-scale deployment of Manpads countermeasures to the aviation industry," said William Knocke, Homeland Security spokesman.
Under pressure from Congress in 2004, the Homeland Security Department gave Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems Plc $45 million each to adapt military missile defense systems to be used by airlines. Military systems require too much maintenance, and too often are fired by mistake, to be used on a passenger airliner.
Both BAE and Northrop systems use lasers to jam the guidance systems of incoming missiles, which lock onto the heat of an aircraft's engine.
What the tests show
According to the report, tests showed:
- They can be installed on commercial aircraft without impairing safety.
- At least one company can supply 1,000 systems at a cost of $1 million each.
- It will cost $365 per flight to operate and maintain the systems, more than the $300-per-flight goal.
- The systems are not yet reliable enough for commercial use.
John Meenan, executive vice president for the Air Transport Association, questioned whether the cost of such systems matches the security risk.
"The counter-Manpads proposals we have seen reflect more vendor say-so than security prioritization," said Meenan.
Rep. Steve Israel, a Democrat who supports widespread deployment of the systems, said it always has been known that they are expensive. "But it will be much cheaper than the cost of a $5,000 shoulder-fired missile hitting a $130 million 767," Israel said.
In the next phase, the systems will be tested on cargo aircraft in real operational environments for advancements in reliability, performance, cost and ability to be manufactured, the report said.
Results will be reported to Congress in 2008.