The government will begin testing anti-missile equipment on three airliners next month, a first step toward what could be the most expensive security upgrade ever ordered for the nation’s aviation system.
Both Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems will rig out-of-service planes with laser defense systems designed to misdirect shoulder-fired missiles, said John Kubricky, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s systems engineering and development office. Test results will be sent to Congress early next year.
It could take years before passenger planes carry protection against missiles, a weapon terrorists might use to shoot down jets and cause economic havoc in the airline industry. The tests will help the nation’s leaders decide if they should install laser systems on all 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. airline fleet at a cost of at least $6 billion.
“Yes, it will cost money, but it’s the same cost as an aircraft entertainment system,” Kubricky says.
Northrop and BAE Systems each have Department of Homeland Security contracts of about $45 million to develop the anti-missile systems for airliners. Both already sell anti-missile systems for military aircraft. BAE will begin testing its airliner system on an out-of-service American Airlines Boeing 767 in early September, according to BAE business manager Steve duMont.
President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2006 includes $110 million to continue development of the systems, but no money to buy them, says Department of Homeland Security spokesman Donald Tighe. Each laser system costs about $1 million.
Billie Vincent, former head of security for the Federal Aviation Administration, said the government should spend whatever it takes to get effective defense systems in place. He cited a long history of shoulder-fired missiles being used against airliners.
Though no plane in the U.S. has ever been attacked, about 35 airliners and other non-military planes have been attacked elsewhere by shoulder-fired missiles since the late 1970s, according to an October 2004 report by the Congressional Research Service. The attacks shot down 24 aircraft and killed 500 people.
A RAND Corp. study this year recommended postponing installation of anti-missile systems. The study assumed, however, that it would cost $11 billion – not the $6 billion Northrop now cites – to equip all U.S. aircraft with anti-missile technology.
Another study this year by the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank, says the government should divert more money to anti-missile systems on airliners. The study says a successful shoulder-fired missile attack could deter the public from flying, create huge airline losses and devastate the economy.