Looking for Trouble
A shoulder-fired missile is an airline's worst nightmare. Some question whether the Feds are adequately prepared
Steve Benner, an officer with the Maryland Transportation Authority Police, thinks of himself as a very patient hunter. Last week, he was cruising in an unmarked black car near the perimeter fence of Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, looking for people aiming shoulder-fired missiles at airplanes. Others patrol nearby woods on army-green ATVs. "If there's an attack," he boasts, "I think we'll nab 'em."
Better hope so, since that kind of police work is virtually the only protection against shoulder-fired missiles for the country's roughly 450 commercial airports-for now. What comes next is the subject of vigorous debate. The Department of Homeland Security is plodding through tests on technologies designed to deflect missiles away from their targets. As work continues, the airlines and some government officials have questioned whether the threat is large enough to warrant equipping the country's 6,800 commercial planes with defenses costing about $1 million per aircraft to install and $365 per flight to maintain. It's also unclear who would even pay for that. DHS is now looking at Star Wars-style technology that may be cheaper, but it's uncertain whether that would do the trick.
Shoulder-fired missiles, which weigh about 30 pounds and can fit disassembled into a duffel bag, have sent chills down the spines of intelligence officials for years. In the past three decades, they've been used in at least 36 attacks on civilian aircraft abroad and may have been the culprit in the downing of helicopters in Iraq. "There are thousands on the black market this second," says Matt Schroeder, an arms expert with the Federation of American Scientists. Some cost as little as $5,000.
Delays. Since 2004, DHS has given two contractors $185 million to adapt military antimissile technology so it can be used on planes flown by U.S. carriers. After two rounds of tests, DHS reported last summer that the devices worked but broke down too often to meet reliability goals. New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, who's followed the issue for years, is drafting a bill that would kick-start installation of the protections on the roughly 1,300 commercial planes the military uses for airlifts. "Every time we come close to a workable technology," he says, "DHS invents a new experiment that will only delay progress."
DHS denies that assessing other options will cause slowdowns. This summer, officials will test whether unmanned aerial drones used for military surveillance in Iraq could patrol airports, spotting missiles' unique frequency and shooting lasers to throw off their targeting systems, all from an altitude of 60,000 feet. The tests, held at a remote site, will seek to determine whether detection technology works at that altitude, but deployment is a long time off, if it ever happens. DHS is also installing censors at one unnamed U.S. airport to see if a ground-based system of detectors and interceptors could offer airplanes protection when they need it most-just after takeoff and during approach. In the meantime, DHS has studied every U.S. airport to find likely missile launch sites. That info is referred to the Benners of the world, and then it's happy hunting.
This story appears in the May 7, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.