Experts debate how to protect airliners

U.S. exploring civilian use of military technology in wake of missile attacks

December 26, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - With two recent attacks on big airplanes leaving Baghdad International Airport in Iraq, experts on civilian aviation are debating how civilian airliners outside the battle zones could be protected from shoulder-fired missiles.

The Department of Homeland Security is planning to announce soon that it has selected two or three teams of bidders to explore how to put military-style anti-missile technology on airliners. But airline experts have been questioning whether onboard systems are adequate. After an attack on an Air Force C-17 as it flew out of Baghdad on Dec. 9, those questions have increased.

The Air Force said one engine on the four-engine C-17 exploded because of "hostile action" but has not confirmed that it was hit by a missile. The plane returned to the airport.

It was the first combat-related damage to a C-17, the Air Force said. The incident raised questions with civilian experts because the C-17, built by Boeing, is one of the newer planes in the Air Force inventory, and would presumably have been equipped with a system that detects missiles and then either drops decoy flares or deploys a laser to blind incoming missiles, the two technologies in broad use.

"If a C-17 so equipped was hit, it's some bad news for the civil world," said Langhorne M. Bond, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration from 1977 to 1981. But he said that the plane might not have had antimissile defenses.

An Air Force spokesman said that for "operational reasons," he would not specify what equipment the C-17 carried.

Civilian experts say that over the years, the Air Force has put a variety of defensive systems on those planes - some so prone to false alarms that pilots have been known to turn them off.

A few days before the C-17 was hit, a civilian wide-body jet was hit by a missile. On Nov. 22, a DHL cargo plane was hit on departure, a vulnerable time because the engines are working near maximum thrust, giving off an easy-to-spot heat trail. The plane did not have an antimissile system.

The DHL plane was an Airbus A-300, a type in common use for carrying passengers. It was able to return to the airport, although aviation experts said it had a very narrow escape. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, the missile destroyed the plane's hydraulic systems and the crew could maneuver the plane only by varying the speed of its two engines.

In response to the missile threat, the Department of Homeland Security asked contractors in September for proposals on how to equip civilian planes with military anti-missile technologies. Twenty-four responded, and the department invited five to present their technologies.

Of the five, two or three are expected to get contracts early next month for $2 million each, to work on their proposals for six months. Then the department would select some number of those three for another $45 million contract for development of prototypes and testing, industry participants said.

After 18 to 24 months, said spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich, the Department of Homeland Security would decide whether to deploy the technology, invest in new research and development or take some other path.

"This is an extremely aggressive time line," Petrovich said.

Security experts have taken the threat of missiles more seriously since November 2002, when terrorists believed to be associated with the al-Qaida terror network tried to shoot down an Israeli Boeing 757 as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya.

The technologies that the companies are trying to adapt for civilian use are based on those in use on military aircraft, but in some cases are more modern.

For example, Avisys Corp. of Austin, Texas, which says it has installed anti-missile technology on aircraft that carry foreign heads of state, and Arinc of Annapolis, which specializes in various kinds of aviation-related electronics, have proposed a system that will use two kinds of sensors, to cut down on false alarms.

One is a system that looks for light in the ultraviolet spectrum that is emitted by a missile's plume. The other is Doppler radar that calculates the speed of an incoming missile, as well as its direction. The idea is to eliminate false alarms, according to the designers.

The system releases flares that burn on contact with air. But the flares burn at a relatively low temperature, so they are nearly invisible from the ground and opponents with missiles would not know they were in use, said Ronald A. Gates, president of Avisys. Proponents say the system would sell for about $500,000 per plane and would be easy to maintain, because not much can go wrong with the flares.

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