A Northwest Airlines Boeing 747 will be equipped with a laser-based antimissile system this year, part of a test in defense contractor Northrop Grumman's effort to develop a less-costly way to protect commercial airliners from shoulder-fired missiles.
During flight tests, which will be used to ensure the system won't impair a plane's flight, there will be no paying passengers on the Northwest plane, and no missiles will be fired at it.
The plane's target price: about $1 million each.
Northrop Grumman will also install and test its aircraft protection system, called Guardian, on a FedEx MD-11.
Eagan, Minn.-based Northwest, the dominant carrier at Detroit Metro, would not comment about its participation in the antimissile system's development. But Northrop Grumman said the airline will provide engineering and technical services that will aid development of commercially viable antimissile equipment for civilian airliners.
Missile tests, using dummy warheads, will be conducted at a New Mexico test range. The target will be a cable car traveling between two mountains and emitting an electronic signal identical to that of a 747.
With Northrop Grumman's Guardian system, sensors detect activity that could be a sign of an incoming missile.
Once a missile attack is confirmed, a laser is directed at the missile. It's intended to confuse the missile's guidance system and send it off-course.
"From the time that missile is launched till we defeat it is two, three seconds," said Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman director of infrared countermeasure business development. "And it requires no action from the pilot or anyone on the plane."
Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman is one of two companies working under contract with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to adapt military antimissile technology for use on civilian jets. The other is BAE Systems.
In August, the department selected both companies to independently build and test antimissile prototypes for commercial airliners. Each company was to receive $45 million in development funds.
A goal of the Homeland Security Department is to determine whether a viable technology exists that could counter the potential threat that shoulder-fired missiles pose to commercial aircraft.
Worldwide, more than 700,000 of the missiles have been manufactured. Thousands are unaccounted for.
A successful missile attack on an airliner could kill hundreds of people and create economic losses that could rise above $15 billion, as fearful travelers stop flying, analysts forecast.
Earlier this week, the Rand Corp. think tank released a study that declared airliner antimissile systems are currently too expensive and unreliable. Installing those systems would cost about $1.6 million per plane, plus annual operating costs of about $2.1 billion.
Installing such systems on the nation's fleet of about 6,800 commercial airlines would cost about $11 billion, it estimated. That's an average of $1.6 million per plane.
And annual operating costs would be about $2.1 billion. Over 20 years, the cost to develop, procure and operate such systems would amount to an estimated $40 billion.
Rand said that dwarfs the federal government's current spending on all transportation security, about $4.4 billion a year.
"At the current price, we don't think it's prudent to proceed with installation," said James Chow, a Rand engineer who headed the project.
"But if we can make them cheaper, then perhaps it would be prudent to proceed."
The Air Transport Association, the industry trade group for the nation's major airlines, says the possibility of a missile attack on an airliner is a serious concern. But other types of weapons and tactics could also be used to attack the aviation system, the ATA notes.