Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
September 3, 2015

After MH17, Senator Revives Commercial Airliner Anti-Missile Defense Idea

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., talks with reporters Jan. 14. after the Republican Senate luncheon in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Kirk talks with reporters Jan. 14. after the Republican Senate luncheon in the Capitol. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., told the Washington Post Friday that, in the aftermath of the Malaysia Airlines MH17 disaster and with shoulder-fired missiles proliferating in places like Libya in Iraq, he would press the Federal Aviation Administration to install anti-missile defenses on commercial airliners.

It probably won’t be an easy sell. Right after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the idea had some real momentum. But it eventually suffered a long, slow death over cost, reliability and need.

The focus back then was on shoulder-fired missiles, known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems or the unfortunate acronym of MANPADS. Evidence points to MH17 being shot down by a more advanced missile system.

A Department of Homeland Security program got $60 million in fiscal 2004 for a program to outfit commercial airliners with defenses against those missiles, then $61 million in fiscal 2005 and $108.9 million in fiscal 2006. But by fiscal 2007, then-President George W. Bush requested only $4.9 million.

In all, $276 million went into the effort, but by fiscal 2010 the money had dried up.  Although contractors and other advocates protested that there were cheaper options, the estimated cost figure of $43 billion over 20 years that circulated was hard to overcome.

Besides that, there were other issues. Laser systems mounted to the commercial airliners would add weight and affect aerodynamics of a plane, warned the airlines. From an article on a 2008 testing program:

American Airlines on Thursday said it is participating in the program, but added it is “not in favor of installing counter-MANPADS on commercial aircraft.”

The airline believes protection is best accomplished by preventing terrorists from getting shoulder-fired missiles, or by using ground-based systems, spokesman John Hotard said.

But the airline said it is willing to participate because it “wants to understand the development” of these technologies that might be available in the future.

As of 2006, reliability was still a real problem, per this CQ Homeland Security News story (subscribers only):

Charles E. McQueary, outgoing DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology, said in February that the systems under development still are not meeting reliability standards and need to be serviced, on average, once every 1,200 hours of flying time; they need to beat a 3,000-hour threshold.

Given that there’s no history of such attacks on U.S. commercial airliners or even much history of the threat of them — an argument raised by opponents of anti-missile defense on commercial airliners even amid the post-2001 fears — Kirk could have an uphill effort ahead of him for his FAA petition.

But expect there to be a broader revival of the push than just from Kirk;  for instance, Frost & Sullivan Aerospace and Defense Senior Industry Analyst Brad Curran released a statement Thursday evening that said:

Governments and airlines need to reassess their reluctance to equip civil airlines with missile defense systems which are currently installed on many military aircraft. As of now, only a few aircraft assigned to transport government officials have these systems. However, it has been reported that El Al has been equipping their planes with anti-missile technology since 2004, and the systems are installed on the majority of their fleet.

Ongoing discussions about equipping civil aircraft with missile defense systems have been about providing a basic level of protection against manpads or man-portable anti-aircraft missiles – small, short-range weapons that are easily hidden and accessible to terrorists.

Defending against a comprehensive air defense system fielded by a nation-state, equipped with a variety of radars, missile guidance systems, and long-range sophisticated missiles, has not been considered.

Time’s Mark Thompson has more here, too, on the history of missile defenses on planes.

Comments (19)

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    July 19, 2014
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    Fully afree with this effort. It is a good opportunity to avoid such phaenomena like the nowadays tragedy.

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    I agree it needs to be reviewed … but should not be paid for by tax payers who may never fly.

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