WASHINGTON (UPI) — The U.S. government is moving to study a new generation of defense technology designed to meet the threat posed to commercial aviation by shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, in the wake of the arrest last week of a man charged with trying to sell one of these easily portable and relatively inexpensive weapons to terrorists.

“The threat is significant,” Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, told United Press International this week. “We’ve been fortunate so far.”

“We know that several dozen terrorist organizations have either sought or gained access to these weapons,” he said, adding that the threat was probably worse abroad than in the United States.

Mary Schiavo, a former government aviation safety official who has since made it her business to draw public attention to the risks associated with flying, says that, since 1970, there have been almost twice as many attempts to shoot down non-military aircraft as to bomb them — 59 to 31.

Mica says that the technology to protect military aircraft from these heat-seeking missiles — which aim themselves at the infrared energy put out by a jet engine — can be adapted to civilian jetliners. He hopes it can be deployed on at least a few of the nation’s 6,000-plus commercial planes “within the next 12 months.”

But the technology doesn’t come cheap. The cost could be as high as $2 million per aircraft and even if only a small proportion of planes are outfitted the result is likely to be a huge bonanza for defense contractors, and a huge bill for either the taxpayer or an airline industry which — despite a huge federal bailout after Sept. 11 — continues to teeter on the brink of financial collapse.

The Department for Homeland Security is studying a number of proposals for technology that confuses these infrared guidance systems in different ways — either by using flares, lamps or lasers — and that could be used on civilian aircraft.

Their plan calls for this study to be complete by October, but the department sees anti-missile technology as just one tactic in defending civil aviation from the threat, according to spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. He said others include intelligence and law enforcement activities — like last week’s sting operation — and so-called “area denial” — securing the perimeter and surrounding areas of airports to stop terrorists from launching missiles.

The bottom line: there is no commitment from the administration to actually outfit civilian aircraft, according to Deputy Secretary Gordon England.

“I don’t think it’s inevitable that commercial airliners with anti-missile technology,” he told the Heritage foundation Wednesday, “but I do think it’s prudent to be prepared.”

He said the study program the department had embarked on meant that “if it’s felt necessary in the future, we would have a reliable approach … a solution to this potential problem.”

Dissatisfied with answers like these from the administration, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other congressional Democrats are continuing to press a bill she drafted after an al-Qaida cell in Kenya narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet with a shoulder-launched missile last year.

The bill would mandate the installation of missile defense systems on all new jet aircraft used for scheduled passenger flights — and the federally-funded retrofitting of all such existing planes — starting no later than the end of the year.

“I do not think (the administration) is moving fast enough,” she told UPI, “and it’s because they don’t want to spend the money.” Estimates of the cost run from $7 billion to $14 billion.

Perhaps because of the huge costs, the airline industry remains cautious. “As with all terrorist threats, the question of what constitutes the most effective and appropriate response requires balance, perspective and information,” says the Air Transport Association in statement welcoming the government’s decision to study “this untested technology” and explore “alternative solutions.”

A spokeswoman refused UPI’s request to comment further or answer questions.

Boxer insists that the money is worth it — and that the government should pay.

“If we can spend $45 billion a year in Iraq — which is what we’re doing at the moment, just for the military (costs) — why can’t we spend a million dollars per plane to protect the flying public?” Boxer asks. “If Air Force One can have these defenses, why can’t the rest of us?”

She adds that the cost will likely come down through economies of scale if all scheduled passenger planes were fitted with the equipment and she points out that it is a small proportion of the total cost of a new jetliner — anything between $40 million and $140 million.

Moreover, “the costs of not doing (it) could be incalculable. Just think about the impact a missile strike would have — beyond the terrible human cost — on our airline industry and our economy.”

One senior executive in the aviation industry — who asked not to be named — agreed that a single successful strike in the United States would quickly drive the airline industry, and then the aviation industry, into a catastrophic tailspin.

Responding to the growing pressure, a number of defense contractors have begun to tout their wares.

Northrop-Grumman say that their technology could be ready for use and certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for civilian planes within nine months.

Robert DeBoca, who leads the company’s infrared counter measures and laser systems division, says it’s just a matter of “repackaging” the technology so that it can be installed easily on commercial jetliners.

He says their system — like all the military products — is autonomous, which means that no pilot intervention is required. But unlike competitors’ technology, he says, theirs is already adapted for use on large aircraft, including the Wedgetail, a military version of the Boeing 737 airliner used by Australia’s armed forces.

Some officials remain skeptical, however, “This is not just a simple question of attaching something to an airplane, there’s actually airplane integration issues and there’s a lot of different airplanes,” England said.

“There’s a lot of questions,” he concluded, among which he listed maintenance and reliability.

Officials say maintenance is an issue because airliners in scheduled flights are expected to fly many, many more hours during a lifetime than military aircraft. Reliability is a question because — again in contrast to its role on military planes — the technology will only really be needed in the few seconds after take off and before landing, when the sensors which most types of equipment use to detect missile launches is most vulnerable to being confused by objects on the ground.

Despite these reservations, Mica says the administration is already moving as fast as it can, and that Boxer’s bill is unnecessary.

“I don’t think we have time for legislation … I don’t know what else we could do. I’ve never seen anything move so fast. I helped to create the Transportation Security Administration and I could tell you five areas we’re behind in, but this isn’t one of them.”

Opponents say the bill would unbalance aviation security strategy by insisting on equipping every plane.

“Why should we spend $10 billion on outfitting every plane?” asked one Republican congressional staffer. “Why not outfit the ones at greatest risk and spend the remainder on more air marshals, passenger screening and cargo security? Clearly we have limited resources and we have to balance the needs as best we can.”

Boxer says that if the administration is committed to moving forward, she welcomes its change of heart.

“It’s music to my ears if they are going to do this without the bill, because from the moment we introduced it, they’ve opposed it. It’s taken world events to change their attitude. All I’m concerned about is getting the job done. If we can do it without a bill that’s great.”

Copyright 2003 by United Press International. All rights reserved.

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