Portable anti-aircraft missiles present a profound threat to commercial aviation. Easily obtainable by terrorist groups, or even individuals, for relatively low cost, a shoulder-fired missile can be hidden in an average vehicle parked anywhere within a mile or more from an airport, only to be deployed, aimed and fired by a novice, far too quickly to prevent the missile from hitting its target. For a defenseless airliner, the result would be catastrophic.
- In 2003, a DHL airliner operating in the middle-east was hit by a portable missile. The pilots’ ability to make a successful emergency landing was described as a miracle, so extensive was the damage to the airliner.
- A shoulder-launched missile destroyed a civilian helicopter in Iraq in late April 2005, killing all but one aboard when the helicopter crashed. The helicopter did not have the missile defenses military aircraft are equipped with.
Missile defense systems, the most popular using a laser to fool an incoming missile into missing the airliner, can be mounted on all 6000 commercial airliners in the U.S. fleet, and would be effective in countering the threat. But cost concerns (and, frankly, the fact that no such attacks have involved U.S. airliners and passengers) have, thus far, prevented their deployment.
In 2004, the Rand Corporation, a respected defense analysis firm concluded it was cheaper from a cost perspective, to accept the loss of an airliner or airliners, and the resulting economic repercussions, than to deploy a Man-Portable-Air-Defense System (MANPADS) on commercial airliners, at least until the deployment costs of newer airliner missile defenses come down. The study assumed the costs resulting from an attack would be similar to those after 9/11, with a multi-day shutdown of the airline industry. The study noted, however, that if the economy were more significantly damaged, or more than a small number of aircraft destroyed, at some point it would make economic sense to deploy a preventative defense now.
While we respect Rand’s conclusions, we note that arguing the position from a simple cost perspective – and not considering the enormous loss of life, follow-on attacks, or the fact that further mass casualty airliner attacks may devastate the economy far worse than 9/11 – is derelict. We believe the industry needs the protection of MANPADS against a threat we know is coming – sooner or later; and that the public deserves this protection.
We also believe more than enough money exists in the Homeland Security budget as it stands, if it is simply better managed.
It is true that the downing of an airliner with a missile is not nearly as devastating as additional 9/11 attacks. The loss would not affect ground targets like skyscrapers, or citizens below. But, multiple airliners, targeted simultaneously, would have a far increased effect. Currently, we have absolutely no defense against man-portable missile systems.
The reliability of our present security system to protect against a missile attack is zero.