Government At Odds With Airlines Over Expedited Antimissile Systems

A decision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to quickly develop antimissile technology for commercial airplanes appears to be at odds with a new campaign by the airline industry to pinpoint where the money can be best spent. The airline industry does not want the government to respond rashly to the "headline of the moment" or the "vendor seeking to sell his product," as a top official from the Air Transport Association (ATA) puts it. The divide was revealed when DHS said it is moving expeditiously to develop new anti-missile technology. John Meenan, executive vice president and chief operating officer at ATA, asked lawmakers on Aug. 25 to slow down and study where airplanes are most vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The division comes at the very time DHS dropped United Airlines [UALAQ] from the second phase of a research project to adapt military antimissile technology to commercial carriers. Moreover, a technology company working hand- in-hand with United, L-3 AVISYS, says its flare-based antimissile system would cost billions of dollars less than the laser-based systems being designed by BAE Systems PLC [BAESF.PK] and Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] -- the two companies that made the cut for the second phase of the DHS contract.

BAE Systems and Northup Grumman are developing laser-based technology that jams the guidance systems of incoming missiles. United Airlines was developing a flare-based system that would fire off low-temperature burning decoys to attract missiles and deflect an attack. A key function of United was to keep a close eye on the costs of installing and maintaining antimissile equipment. Airlines fear they will have to pay for a major portion of the technology, even if the government helps out with the installation expenses.

The research into flare-based decoys is now defunct -- unless DHS or Congress finds a way to fund all three projects. Kirk Whitworth, a spokesman for DHS, said the technology team headed up by United was not able "to meet our aggressive timetable" to wrap up the research in 18 months. DHS emphasizes that the development of an antimissile system must be a "significantly expedited program." This approach seems to rankle ATA. Meenan says anti-terrorism priorities must first be established and that it is not clear at this time whether antimissile systems should be installed on some or all of the U.S. commercial fleet.

Meenan told the House aviation subcommittee on Aug. 25 that the country runs a risk of undermining the ability to make meaningful security improvements by taking on too many well intentioned projects without proper planning, sequencing, budgeting and funding. To respond to the "headline of the moment or to the vendor seeking to sell his product" -- or to try to do everything at once -- leads to random and unfocused spending, he said. And he emphasized this is especially the case for the antimissile technology, frequently referred to as MANPADS technology. (MANPADS is an acronym for Man Portable Air Defense Systems and is now synonymous with shoulder-fired missiles.)

"I cannot think of a better example of our concern with un-prioritized, lack of big picture analysis spending pushed by vendors than the continuing call for the deployment of counter-MANPADS technology," he told the lawmakers. He criticized those who claim the antimissile technology would cost no more than an in-flight entertainment system. Meenan believes the government should be looking at other avenues as well, such as beefing up anti-proliferation efforts and fortifying airport security.

The House hearing focused on the findings of the 9/11 Commission, formally known as the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States. One of the commission's recommendations was for the government to make "hard choices" about the most effective way to prevent terrorist attacks in an era of limited resources. "Whether it is counter-MANPADS spending, or spending in pursuit of any of the Commission's recommendations, the point is we need to 'spend smart' to defeat terrorism," Meenan said.

In July, the House approved legislation by a unanimous vote to protect commercial aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles. A major part of that bill was designed to speed up the process of installing missile defense technology on commercial aircraft if DHS recommends a specific system. And it appears DHS will make such a recommendation in early 2006 (Airline Business Report, Aug. 16).

DHS is being very upfront about the potential high costs to airlines of using antimissile technology, especially maintenance costs. Technologies developed for military or other specialized purposes are currently incompatible with commercial air fleet operations. And although underlying military technologies will be leveraged, the systems must be adapted to meet commercial operational concepts. DHS noted that one likely technology that has been identified for potential commercial use is the so-called Directed Infra Red Counter Measure (DIRCM) system, an infrared device that jams missile guidance systems. This is the laser-based technology that BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman are adapting to commercial use in the second phase of the research.

However, current DIRCMs cannot be easily adapted to the U.S. commercial air fleet and must be reengineered. In addition, currently available DIRCMs have roughly 300 hours of life before they must be repaired or refurbished. While suitable for the military or special purpose aircraft, given their maintenance and logistical infrastructure, this is not suitable for U.S. commercial air fleet use, DHS acknowledges. The cost of the training, ground support equipment, supplies, spares and logistics that would need to be in place at every U.S. airport would be significant, according to DHS.

The antimissile system that was being developed by the United team is known as IRCM, or decoy-based infrared countermeasure. DHS says it also would be premature to integrate currently available military IRCM equipment aboard civilian aircraft due to numerous issues concerning aircraft modification and certification, maintenance and supportability, and operational employment. "Even if IRCM equipment were retrofitted on only the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, safety of flight and IRCM operational issues abound because rigorous analytical processes have not been performed," according to DHS.