Jon E. Dougherty is a Missouri-based political science major, author, writer and columnist. Follow him on Twitter.
As Congress and the Bush administration debate whether to allow commercial airline pilots to fly armed to protect against future terrorist hijackers, some suggest the threat of ground-based portable missiles could be an even more pressing problem than skyjacking.
Private and government airline security experts shudder to think of the possibility that civilian aircraft could be blown out of the sky by “man-portable” [MANPADS] shoulder-fired missiles, but earlier this year U.S. intelligence agencies issued a warning to airlines and local law enforcement authorities alike to be on the lookout for just that circumstance.
Using information that unnamed government officials said had been gleaned from terrorist sources, the mid-May warning said al-Qaida operatives may have managed to smuggle an undisclosed number of U.S.-made “Stingers” or Russian-made SA-7 surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, into the country. The plan, officials said, would be to employ them against U.S. airliners or even military aircraft flying domestic routes.
“We don’t have information that al-Qaida is planning to use these against commercial aircraft in the United States,” one FBI official told the Washington Times May 31. But nonetheless, he said the bureau “was passing the information along for people to remain alert to the potential use.”
CNN reported that U.S. intelligence officials became concerned about domestic use of the MANPADS weapons after discovering a discarded SA-7 launcher outside the outer perimeter of a remote air base in Saudi Arabia used by U.S. military aircraft.
Given “al-Qaida’s demonstrated objective to target the U.S. airline industry, its access to U.S. and Russian-made MANPAD systems, and recent apparent targeting of U.S.-led military forces in Saudi Arabia,” said the May FBI warning, “law enforcement agencies in the United States should remain alert to potential use of MANPADs against U.S. aircraft.”
A separate report filed by Agence France Presse at about the same time said U.S. forces in Afghanistan found a cache of HN-5 SAMs, the Chinese-made version of Russia’s SA-7.
The Agence France Presse report went on to say that despite the find, U.S. officials “stressed there was no evidence that al-Qaida was planning attacks on U.S. commercial aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles, or that such weapons were being smuggled into the United States.”
Commercial fleet unprepared
No new alerts have been issued since May, an FBI spokesman told WorldNetDaily yesterday. While good news, airline pilots and industry experts insist the U.S. commercial fleet is like others around the world in that it remains vulnerable to portable missile threats and will likely continue to be in the foreseeable future.
Randy Harrison, a spokesman for homeland security issues at Boeing, the world’s No. 1 civilian aircraft maker, said he couldn’t discuss the types of missile “countermeasures,” or defensive technology, that could be or is currently being utilized on civilian airliners. But he said the aircraft giant manufactures a number of military planes based on existing civilian models that use defensive missile countermeasures, so that kind of technology could easily be added to civilian fleets.
Capt. Robert Lambert, a commercial airline pilot and spokesman for the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance, said if civilian airliners are targeted by terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles, “there isn’t much we can do about that in the air.”
Lambert, who flew F-14s for the Navy and has practiced maneuvers that help fighter pilots defeat missile threats, said countermeasures like flares and chaff could help better protect slow, cumbersome commercial aircraft.
Flares are used to throw off heat-seeking missiles homing in on a fighter plane’s hot exhaust; chaff are strips of aluminum designed to confuse an incoming missile’s electronic homing equipment. Adding such features “to civilian airliners would be pretty expensive and I don’t know if Boeing or the airlines would want to do that,” Lambert said.
He went on to say airline pilots don’t practice the types of flying maneuvers used by fighter pilots because “they [airliners] are too large and slow” to perform them.
Pressed about the feasibility of protecting U.S. commercial airliners from missile attack, Harrison did say: “It’s been done already, a number of times. It’s not as difficult as you might think.”
One pilot says he believes Americans have already seen the effects of a MANPADS missile on a commercial airliner: “TWA flight 800,” he said, referring to the loss of the Boeing 747 jet that went down off the coast of Long Island, N.Y. July 17, 1996.
A federal investigation never found conclusive evidence of what caused the crash, but eventually settled on a frayed wire spark that allegedly ignited fumes in an empty center fuel tank. But scores of eyewitnesses, including military and civilian pilots in the air that night, say they saw what appeared to be a missile “streak up” from the water’s surface toward the plane and explode.
Nevertheless, were terrorists to attack U.S. airliners using missiles, it would likely cripple the industry for years, analysts say. Airlines are still reeling from the aftershock of the Sept. 11 attacks, in which four airliners were hijacked and flown into both World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
“Provided you could even get shoulder-fired missiles into the United States,” said Standard & Poor’s airline analyst Jim Corridore, “it would be very, very bad for the industry, no question.”
“Passengers are still not over their fears from Sept. 11,” he said. “For there to be a missile attack on an American plane … well, I wouldn’t even want to speculate” on what it would do to the industry.
“It’s still very shaky anyway,” he said.
Destruction of the airline industry would just about put the finishing touches on a U.S. stock market rocked recently by a series of corporate scandals and near-record losses.