Anti-missile Program Launched

Anti-missile Program Launched

Copyright 2004, Traffic World, Inc.

Two aerospace companies and an airline will receive up to $120 million to determine whether anti-missile technology used by the military can be harnessed for use on commercial airplanes.

The Department of Homeland Security awarded research contracts to BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and United Airlines.

"The intent of this program, which will last 18-24 months, is to determine whether there is a viable technology ready to be deployed for commercial aircraft," DHS Undersecretary for Science and Technology Charles McQueary said.

Launch of the program was not related to the current "code orange" alert or any particular recent threat, said DHS Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson. But he said shoulder-fired missiles pose a general worldwide threat to passenger and cargo aircraft - a threat demonstrated when a DHL freighter was hit by a surface-to-air missile in Baghdad in November.

U.S. officials estimate there are hundreds of thousands of various types of missiles around the world. No one knows exactly how many of those are in the hands of persons or groups that might want to fire them at commercial planes.

McQueary said cost and practicality will be important factors considered by the program participants in ultimately deciding what technology, if any, to recommend.

The government spent $2 million in 2003 to assess the risk of a missile strike on a plane and to collect bids from potential contractors. This year the budget allocates $60 million and the administration plans to ask Congress for another $60 million for 2005. That will cover research and development.

There are several types of technologies that provide missile defense, some that are mounted on planes and others that are ground-based.

"There is no single solution to thwart the threat of MANPADS (man-portable missile defense systems) to commercial aircraft," McQueary said.

In addition to cost and feasibility, another concern is the safety of using missile defense systems in populated areas. Flare systems could pose a fire risk and laser systems could threaten peoples'' eyesight, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security Penrose Albright said.