Three congressman have confirmed they were aboard a C-130 flight to Kuwait from Iraq in January when they were attacked by a sophisticated Russian SA-18 shoulder-fired missile that required the U.S. plane to employ high-technology countermeasures to avoid being hit.

They were lucky – the leased commercial aircraft transporting troops aren’t equipped to with those sophisticated countermeasures.

Reps. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., John Spratt, D-S.C., and Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, confirmed the incident to The San Francisco Chronicle. They were part of a six-member delegation of the House Armed Services Committee, led by Rob Simmons, R-Conn.

Missile attacks on Air Force transports flying in and through the Iraq theater are regular occurrences, but the introduction of the SA-18 – the top Russian “man-portable air defense systems,” or MANPADS – is seen as significantly increasing the danger for aircraft.

“The SA-18 is significantly harder to defend against,” said Daniel Goure, of the Lexington Institute, a military affairs think tank. “The SA-18 has increased range, increased altitude, and is much better able to home in on a vital piece of aircraft equipment.”

Air Force aircraft have been equipped with laser systems that deflect and incoming missile’s aim, but no such systems have yet been installed on U.S. commercial airliners, including those that are part of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, civilian aircraft under contract to ferry troops to and from the various staging bases in the Middle East.

“The Civil Reserve Air Fleet … (is) a prime target for terrorists or enemies with MANPADS,” Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said. “The impact of the loss of just one such aircraft would be incalculable. … It is past time to extend this protection to the CRAF fleet and, ultimately, to the entire commercial air fleet.”

In 2002, a failed attempt was made to shoot down an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya. The U.S. Defense Department documents 43 civilian aircraft hit by MANPADS worldwide. Thirty of those hit were destroyed, resulting in 900 passenger and crew deaths.

Two companies have developed systems that could be used on commercial airliners at an installed cost of less than a million dollars per plane.

The Department of Homeland Security is not expected to conclude its study, mandated in 2003, into the best ways to adapt the military’s laser-based infrared countermeasures systems to protect commercial airliners for another 18 months.

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