American aviation and security experts say they are increasingly worried that terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles could target U.S. commercial airliners, but add that some simple, “low-cost” countermeasures could mitigate some of the danger.
Fear of such attacks on commercial aircraft was heightened last week after terrorists in Mombasa, Kenya, unsuccessfully fired a pair of portable missiles at an Israeli airliner bound for Tel Aviv. The airliner attack was timed to coordinate with the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in which more than a dozen people were killed and scores wounded.
The targeting of the Israeli passenger jet immediately raised concerns in Washington, prompting some lawmakers – including Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Bob Graham, D-Fla. – to call on the administration to quickly implement measures to protect American planes.
“That should be something initiated immediately by the newly established Transportation Security [Administration] within the Department of Transportation to respond to this or any other form of attack against commercial aviation or other forms of transportation in the United States,” Graham said last week on “Fox News Sunday,” noting that President Bush did not need congressional authorization to implement the measures.
“Let’s be honest about it. There are thousands of these surface-to-air missiles around the world,” Shelby added. “You can buy them, and you can transport them. Sooner or later, that’s going to be one of the methods for the terrorists to hit.”
Some cost figures put the Russian-developed SA-7 “Grail” air defense missile, believed used in Kenya, at less than $10,000 each. China makes an upgraded version known as the HN-5; both missiles have an effective range of about 2.5 – 3 miles.
Russian prepares to fire SA-7 “Grail.”
But the threat of MANPADS – man-portable air defense systems – being deployed by terrorists against aircraft is not a concern safety and aviation experts are considering for the first time. Many experts have raised the question before, but so far neither the government nor the air carriers have responded with concrete air-safety measures.
Even before last week’s botched attempt to down an Israeli airliner, U.S. officials had examined the possibility that portable missiles could be used against American planes, in part because of a number of prior incidents involving their use against aircraft of other nations.
“In September 1993, Abkhazian separatists of the ex-Soviet republic of Georgia shot down three Tu-134 and Tu-154 airliners using shoulder-fired SAMs from boats out on the Black Sea,” says an excerpt from the book, “Aviation Insecurity: The New Challenges of Air Travel,” by Andrew R. Thomas, due out next year. “These attacks were notable for being the first to hit airliners with missiles launched from boats.”
Thomas, who has also penned “Air Rage: Crisis in the Skies,” said that in April 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed aboard the Rwandan presidential jet (a Falcon 50 registered 9xR-NN) when a SAM hit it on final approach to the international airport at Kigali, Rwanda – an attack that sparked Rwanda’s Hutu-Tutsi civil war.
Before then, in 1986, a Sudan Airways jet was shot down by a SAM, and in the late 1970s, two Rhodesian (now Zimbabwe) airliners were shot down by SA-7 missiles, he said.
As early as 1993, the FAA acknowledged that surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs, were a threat to U.S. commercial aircraft, Time magazine reported this week. In fact, in 1993 and 1994, the agency examined the MANPADS threat and discussed possible countermeasures, says former FAA Special Agent Steve Elson.
“Some pretty interesting ideas surfaced to protect commercial aviation, but to the best of my knowledge they were, like most good ideas in the FAA to ‘protect the flying public,’ buried at FAA Headquarters” in Washington, he said.
Bogdan Dzakovic, another veteran FAA special agent who led the agency’s “Red Team” – a special squad that tested airport security – agreed that little has come of the government’s prior examination of the threat.
“The MANPADS threat was first recognized by FAA in the early to mid ’90s. A working group was established to address this threat,” he told WorldNetDaily. “Unfortunately, senior management again dropped the ball and did not provide any support for this program area, so we are some five to 10 years behind where we should be in dealing with this threat.”
The military is also concerned about protecting its unarmed transport and cargo planes, even in U.S. airspace.
In 1999, Time magazine reported, the Pentagon told Congress the biggest threat to its planes were shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles like the ones fired in Kenya. In response, the Defense Department “awarded a $23 million contract to outfit four Air Force C-17 cargo planes with sophisticated equipment to protect them from Stingers, SA-7s and other portable missiles favored by terrorists,” said Time – or around $6 million per plane.
And, as WorldNetDaily previously reported, earlier this year U.S. intelligence agencies issued a warning to airlines and law-enforcement authorities to watch for signs that terrorists could be planning missile attacks on U.S. planes.
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.
‘Simple, low-cost’ solutions
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 are currently being utilized on civilian airliners.
But, Harrison told WorldNetDaily in July, Boeing 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.
Aviation experts told Time magazine that while the Pentagon may be spending nearly $6 million per plane to outfit its own aircraft with defensive technology, if the commercial industry began buying it to put on civilian aircraft, the price would likely drop to around $2-3 million per unit.
Others, however, believe cheaper methods could be employed – some immediately.
“Some of the measures that were proffered during our MANPADS meetings seven or eight years ago also were quite simple and low- to no-cost,” Elson said. “I hope that those now working on the problem are revisiting the quick, simple, cheap and easy fixes first.”
They include installing flare dispensers on aircraft, which could attract the attention of the heat-seeking warhead atop an incoming missile; changing take-off and landing routes to put planes out of range of portable SAMs; and varying take-off and landing times.
“On the positive side, there are a lot of variables that influence the effectiveness of a missile attack,” said Dzakovic, adding that he couldn’t elaborate. “But the recent attack in Kenya demonstrates that aircraft can survive these types of attacks.”
Harrison, when pressed about the feasibility of protecting U.S. commercial airliners from missile attack, admitted: “It’s been done already, a number of times. It’s not as difficult as you might think.”
Air Force One is reportedly equipped with state-of-the-art anti-missile technology, but details about those systems are classified.
But Capt. Robert Lambert, a commercial pilot and spokesman for the Airline Pilots’ Security Alliance, said earlier this year if civilian airliners are targeted by terrorists using shoulder-fired missiles, “there isn’t much we can do about that in the air.”
However, Lambert, who flew F-14s for the Navy and learned to maneuver around missile threats, added that countermeasures like flares or chaff – small strips of metal dropped by aircraft to confuse a missile’s radar homing device – could help better protect slow, cumbersome commercial aircraft.
Charles Slepian – an aviation-security expert who has worked for TWA and has advised lawmakers, including former New York Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, on the issue – says there is more to securing airplanes than installing anti-missile technology.
“The missiles are a very serious threat,” he told WorldNetDaily, but equally important are ground-security measures that have yet to be taken.
“We need to get serious about things like perimeter security at the airports rather than patting ourselves on the back and saying, ‘Oh look, we’ve got 44,000 screeners,'” he said.
The Transportation Security Administration has spent nearly $6 billion since its inception last year, Slepian said, but “what we’re doing is still a lot of window dressing.”
“Clearing trees and forests around runways, putting in surveillance cameras and motion sensors around perimeters, using roving patrols, and sealing off and moving back parking areas” are all ways to better secure the perimeter of airports, said Slepian.
In May, U.S. military officials discovered a rocket tube near the perimeter of a U.S. airbase in Saudi Arabia. When discovered, the missile was still inside the burned and scarred tube, indicating someone had misused the weapon or it had misfired, but officials are sure a U.S. plane was the intended target.
This week, reports said authorities believe al-Qaida operatives were behind the Saudi and Kenya attacks, noting that the missile tubes used in both bore similar serial numbers.
In response to the attack, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz yesterday proposed installing anti-missile systems on passenger aircraft in that country, focusing on 30 to 40 planes on routes to certain international destinations believed to pose the greatest risk to Israeli commercial aircraft.
Transportation Department officials have said they are working hard to secure American planes in flight, though no one from the TSA would respond to repeated requests for this story.
Nevertheless, some experts believe the government’s efforts so far have been too politically motivated to be effective.
As one example, they cite the TWA Flight 800 disaster, noting that the FAA last year issued a mandate requiring airlines to modify fuel tanks on most planes – a multimillion dollar retrofit – even though the National Traffic and Safety Board has never found conclusive evidence that a spark from bad wiring destroyed the 747 near New York City in 1996.
Reconstruction of the 747 aircraft that was TWA Flight 800.
In fact, some experts and witnesses say a missile was responsible for the downing, though the source of that missile is a subject of debate. Several eyewitnesses, including military pilots, say a portable missile fired from a small vessel in the waters off Manhattan – much like the 1993 attacks against airliners in the ex-Soviet state of Georgia – was responsible.
“At some point,” Dzakovic says, “with all the effort that’s being placed on law enforcement and intelligence, eventually these services need to start doing something other than issue general threat advisories” to protect aircraft.
Other analysts in a seemingly unrelated industry agree.
“Provided you could even get shoulder-fired missiles into the United States,” says 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.