The Department of Homeland Security is proposing an unmanned aerial vehicle defense system designed to fly above airports and protect commercial aircraft against shoulder-fired missiles.
This concept is the newest in a pool of potential technologies that could protect passenger airliners against man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.
The concept now under consideration involves the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle as a decoy, in order to divert a missile launched at a commercial aircraft. It is a “high-payoff, high-risk” program, said Herm Rediess, who oversees the counter-MANPADS efforts at DHS. The project is the brainchild of Jay Cohen, undersecretary for science and technology.
The program comes in the midst of concerns that airplane-mounted missile defense systems are prohibitively expensive. These systems, which use military technology known as directional infrared countermeasures, are fixed to individual aircraft and are already in use by the U.S. Special Operations Command.
When the counter-MANPADS program was stood up in 2003, Congress mandated that DHS find a countermeasures solution using existing technologies that could be adapted to commercial aircraft in a cost-effective manner. DHS had initially determined in 2005 that “the most reasonable choice constituting the best value” would be to use airplane-mounted systems. In 2006, Congress allocated $109 million for the program, allowing DHS to award BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman $45 million contracts each to research and develop these countermeasures. Both contractors were again awarded in August 2006 production and testing contracts, valued at nearly $100 million.
Upon awarding these contracts, DHS was criticized for pursuing what some call an expensive—and unnecessary—system.
DHS officials and many members of Congress have argued that MANPADS are a threat to civilian airliners. U.S. government studies show that at least 24 terrorist organizations possess MANPADS.
John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association and a vocal critic of the counter-MANPADS program, thinks that countermeasures fixed to each airplane are far from the best solution. “We’re dealing with a variety of threats, so putting so much money into one program is not well thought out,” Meenan told National Defense. “Right now, the best solution is to get MANPADS out of the hands of terrorists. We need to go to after the archer instead of chasing the arrows,” he asserted.
Airlines are wary of these airplane-mounted systems because of the weight and cost added to each flight. DHS hopes to keep the cost of each flight carrying the countermeasure system at $350, but it is unclear whether the airlines or the government would bear the cost. During the airlines’ best year ever, they only earned about $600 per flight, Meenan said.
The RAND Corporation, in a 2005 study, estimated that the military infrared defense system would cost $35 billion over a 10-year life cycle to outfit all large commercial aircraft, including operations and maintenance.
Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman’s director of business development, said the RAND study is flat out “inaccurate.” Northrop’s infrared pod system, called Guardian, “will cost about $1 per passenger ticket,” Pledger asserted. This suggests that the airlines could offset maintenance costs by increasing the price of tickets. Plus, “we’re operating under the requirement that each system is no more than $1 million. Guardian is projected well under $1 million at the 200th or 300th system,” he continued. Homeland Security has a goal of producing the airplane-mounted countermeasures for $1 million at the 1,000th system produced.
As a result of the projected high costs of the airplane-mounted countermeasures, Congress decided to seek alternatives. Opinions differ on the reasons behind this decision, but Rediess said it was because “contractors with other programs went to the Hill and said, ‘we have mature programs that are cheaper.’”
DHS received $10 million in extra funding in 2006 specifically to search for alternatives. Rediess said he is trying to find the best solution for the MANPADS threat, in terms of mature technology and cost effectiveness. BAE’s Jeteye and Northrop’s Guardian systems are “not necessarily cost effective because airlines are used to low cost and relatively easy maintenance,” Rediess remarked. “We awarded the initial contracts for [infrared] countermeasures because they were the closest to being ready.”
After re-opening the counter-MANPADS competition to industry in 2006, DHS chose three different systems; two ground-based defense systems and one alternate program, Rediess explained. “We are giving Congress several options,” he added.
Raytheon was awarded a $4.1 million contract for Vigilant Eagle, a microwave-based missile defense system. Northrop Grumman Space Technology was awarded a $1.9 million contract for its Skyguard high-energy laser airport defense system. L-3 Communications received a $1.4 million contract for its Doppler warning system. All three contracts are part of an 18-month assessment period, Rediess said.
The new programs are expected to be less expensive than the infrared countermeasures, largely because they avoid the high cost of outfitting thousands of individual commercial aircraft proponents have said. Raytheon projects its Vigilant Eagle program will cost “$1 billion to $2 billion for the 30 airports that represent 70 percent of commercial aircraft takeoffs and landings,” said Mike Booen, vice president of Raytheon’s advanced missile defense and directed energy programs. “The low deployment price is an order of magnitude less expensive” than aircraft-mounted systems, Booen concluded.
Despite the lower cost, airport protection systems do not come without complaints.
The University of Southern California reported in a study funded by the Federal Emergency Management Administration that “the capability of MANPADS to reach targets at altitudes of up to or beyond 15,000 feet allow these weapons to be used at radiuses of 50 miles or more from most airports, making perimeter facility control largely ineffective.” Northrop Grumman estimated that the zone of vulnerability around the airport is 300 square miles. Pledger said this means the airport would have to be guarded or patrolled for 50 miles around the grounds of the airport, which he believes is “unrealistic.”
Raytheon maintains that Vigilant Eagle is “well within the parameters” of protection needed for the program, based on the last two recorded commercial airplane attacks. Booen asserted that the “most vulnerable part of flight [to an attack] is during initial takeoff” and that a terrorist is “unlikely to know” the range of an airport protection system.
In the midst of the countermeasures debate, some wonder about the probability of a shoulder-fired missile attack against a commercial airliner. “The MANPADS threat is only marginally different than the threat of a direct-fire weapon [.50 caliber, rocket-propelled grenade] attack on an aircraft,” Meenan said.
Not so, said DHS. A rocket propelled grenade is a “poor weapon to use against an airplane in flight, because it is so imprecise,” Rediess says. He also doubts the threat of a .50 caliber gun attack because commercial airlines are built to strict guidelines to sustain injuries to the aircraft.
Pledger noted that aircraft are “built to withstand gun fire … so a .50 caliber gun wouldn’t do anything unless it hits both pilots.”
Meenan countered that .50 caliber guns or RPGs are only two potential weapons a terrorist might have. The more fundamental problem is the threat of an adaptive enemy. “If [Osama bin Laden] sees that we are spending billions of dollars on MANPADS defense, he might decide to use another weapon against us,” Meenan remarked.
Still, some believe that these missiles are more of a threat than any other weapon accessible to terrorists because of their size and durability. “They are easy to transport and conceal since they average the size and weight of a large duffel bag and easily fit in the trunk of an automobile,” said DHS in a report to Congress.
An attack against a commercial aircraft is also thought to be a plausible scenario due to recent attempts. A commercial Boeing 757 aircraft departing Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, was attacked by two missiles, both of which just narrowly missed the aircraft.
This incident was not the first, or last, reported shoulder-fired missile attack on a commercial airliner, but in the post 9/11 environment, it quickly prompted the U.S. government to take a hard look at these missiles as a terrorist threat to the U.S. civilian population.
DHS has taken the threat very seriously, awarding $279 million dollars in contracts in three years, said Chris Kelly, associate communications director in the DHS science and technology directorate. The counter-MANPADS program started out with $2 million in 2003.
After awarding big contracts in 2006, DHS plans to move forward with all the countermeasures programs during the next two years, until it submits an update to Congress in early to mid 2009.
BAE’s and Northrop Grumman’s airplane-mounted systems will be tested on commercial airline flights this year. They will be tested to see how they work and how the airlines adapt to operations and maintenance demands. The three airport-protection systems will go forward this year with suitability testing to see if, and how, their respective programs work at commercial airports.
Quietly waiting is DHS’ new unmanned aerial vehicle defense system. Cohen’s vision for this project is somewhat unclear but it promises to become part of the countermeasures debate. Cohen enthusiastically explained that, “we have already proven this technology in the military. We know how to do this. With the help of Congress and the administration, we can do this.”
Cohen said the concept would be adapted for use with military UAVs or even an aerostat that would sit “tens of thousands of feet in the air.” Rediess said that DHS plans to test a missile warning system on a military Global Hawk UAV in late summer.
Industry and DHS alike agree on the importance of diversifying its options for a missile defense system to hedge against the risk of a disastrous commercial airline attack. In an uncertain environment, “it’s good to have choices,” Cohen said.
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