Magazine article National Defense

Aviation Security

Magazine article National Defense

Aviation Security

Article excerpt

DHS expands search for anti-missile technology

The Department of Homeland Security is proposing an unmanned aerial vehicle defense system designed to fly above airports and protect commercial aircraft against shoulder-fired missiles.

This concept is the newest in a pool of potential technologies that could protect passenger airliners against man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

The concept now under consideration involves the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle as a decoy, in order to divert a missile launched at a commercial aircraft. It is a "high-payoff, high-risk" program, said Herrn Rediess, who oversees the counter-MANPADS efforts at DHS. The project is the brainchild of Jay Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology.

The program comes in the midst of concerns that airplane-mounted missile defense systems are prohibitively expensive. These systems, which use military technology known as directional infrared countermeasures, are fixed to individual aircraft and are already in use by the U.S. Special Operations Command.

When the counter-MANPADS program was stood up in 2003, Congress mandated that DHS find a countermeasures solution using existing technologies that could be adapted to commercial aircraft in a cost-effective manner. DHS had initially determined in 2005 that "the most reasonable choice constituting the best value" would be to use airplane-mounted systems. In 2006, Congress allocated $109 million for the program, allowing DHS to award BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman $45 million contracts each to research and develop these countermeasures. Both contractors were again awarded in August 2006 production and testing contracts, valued at nearly $100 million.

Upon awarding these contracts, DHS was criticized for pursuing what some call an expensive-and unnecessary-system.

DHS officials and many members of Congress have argued that MANPADS are a threat to civilian airliners. U.S. government studies show that at least 24 terrorist organizations possess MANPADS.

John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association and a vocal critic of the counter-MANPADS program, thinks that countermeasures fixed to each airplane are far from the best solution. "We're dealing with a variety of threats, so putting so much money into one program is not well thought out," Meenan told National Defense. "Right now, the best solution is to get MANPADS out of the hands of terrorists. We need to go to after the archer instead of chasing the arrows," he asserted.

Airlines are wary of these airplane-mounted systems because of the weight and cost added to each flight. DHS hopes to keep the cost of each flight carrying the countermeasure system at $350, but it is unclear whether the airlines or the government would bear the cost. During the airlines' best year ever, they only earned about $600 per flight, Meenan said.

The RAND Corporation, in a 2005 study, estimated that the military infrared defense system would cost $35 billion over a 10-year life cycle to outfit all large commercial aircraft, including operations and maintenance.

Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman's director of business development, said the RAND study is flat out "inaccurate." Northrop's infrared pod system, called Guardian, "will cost about $1 per passenger ticket," Pledger asserted. This suggests that the airlines could offset maintenance costs by increasing the price of tickets. Plus, "we're operating under the requirement that each system is no more than $1 million. Guardian is projected well under $1 million at the 200th or 300th system," he continued. Homeland Security has a goal of producing the airplane-mounted countermeasures for $1 million at the 1,000th system produced.

As a result of the projected high costs of the airplane-mounted countermeasures, Congress decided to seek alternatives. Opinions differ on the reasons behind this decision, but Rediess said it was because "contractors with other programs went to the Hill and said, 'we have mature programs that are cheaper. …

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