For airliners, there is only one sure defense against the kind of missile linked to the shoot-down of a Malaysian jet over Ukraine: staying out of range.
While the U.S. spent at least $239 million last decade studying whether commercial craft could be upgraded to defeat shoulder-fired, low-altitude weapons, the threat from the sophisticated, Russian-built Buk system defies the technology available to civilian planes.
“I just don’t see anything industrywide that we could do right now that’s really going to help,” said Brent Spencer, a former U.S. Navy air traffic controller who is now on the faculty of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Arizona.
Fighter jets attempting to evade a high-altitude missile like the Buk have radar to help locate an incoming warhead approaching at speeds of almost three times the speed of sound. Then they perform rapid, last-minute turns in a bid to throw the weapon off course -- violent maneuvers beyond the capability of a heavier, much-slower airliner laden with passengers.
“There isn’t anything” that can be done to protect a commercial plane, said Jim O’Halloran, an editor who oversees coverage of weapons systems for IHS Jane’s.
A missile struck Malaysia Airlines’ Flight 17 over Ukraine at about 33,000 feet (10,000 meters), killing all 298 people on board the Boeing Co. 777 bound for Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam. The U.S. has concluded the weapon was fired from rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, President Barack Obama said yesterday.
“In order to shoot down an airplane at that altitude from the ground, it takes a pretty sophisticated missile system,” said Denny Kelly, principal of Coppell, Texas-based aviation-accident investigation firm Kelly James & Associates.
Widely used in eastern Europe, the surface-to-air Buk is normally found only in the hands of military units -- or in the Ukraine case, possibly with separatists in the country’s civil war. It can reach targets as high as 72,000 feet.
Airlines’ standard response to combat zones is to keep planes at a distance. Regulators and airlines worldwide are now adding an extra margin of safety with Ukraine overflights, routing flights away from the conflict in the country’s east or outside the airspace entirely.
“That whole area is one in which there’s a tremendous amount of instability,” said Sean Cassidy, national safety coordinator for the Washington-based Air Line Pilots Association. “We just have to make sure we remain vigilant about operating anywhere remotely close to that place.”
When asked for a comment on the feasibility of missile defenses, the industry’s U.S. trade group, Airlines for America, said by e-mail: “Airlines continuously assess and mitigate risk, including evaluating appropriate technology and reviewing routes, flight plans and procedures, and we believe that is the appropriate action to continue.”
While high-altitude, surface-to-air shoot-downs have occurred before -- such as the Russian jet accidentally struck during a Ukrainian military exercise in 2001, killing all 78 people aboard -- they are rare. Recent security attention has focused on smaller, shoulder-fired weapons, like those used by suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in 2002 to unsuccessfully attack an Israeli jet in Kenya.
Such missiles have a ceiling of only about 15,000 feet, enough to attack a plane near the ground by tracking the heat from the engines. Israel picked a unit of Haifa-based Elbit Systems Ltd. to install countermeasures to protect El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. and two other carriers based in the country.
In the U.S., the threat spurred the effort in the mid-2000s by companies including Northrop Grumman Corp. and BAE Systems Plc to develop missile-defense systems to be mounted onto commercial aircraft. They were bankrolled in part by awards from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“My position was there was a real risk, because the missile sophistication has leapt forward, become highly sophisticated,” said Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic representative from Indiana who was chairman of the U.S. panel that investigated the Sept. 11 terror attacks. “The risk to airliners has increased dramatically. It no longer is a difficult feat to shoot an airliner out of the skies.”
Northrop’s system outfitted a FedEx Corp. jet freighter with the Guardian missile-defense system, which roughly was the size of a bathtub and weighed about 500 pounds. BAE Systems’ device was designed to shoot a laser at the incoming missile and disrupt its trajectory, according to a company website.
U.S. jetliners aren’t using such systems. Perry Flint, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association trade group, said the U.S. determined it would cost more than $43 billion over 20 years just to equip the U.S. airline fleet. Advocates never specified who would pay to equip aircraft -- the government or the airlines, he said.
Even if the government paid, the devices would boost the weight of a plane by two passengers without generating any extra revenue for carriers, Flint said.
Northrop Grumman, based in Falls Church, Virginia, didn’t respond to requests for comment on the status of its missile-defense system for commercial aircraft. London-based BAE referred inquiries to the Department of Homeland Security, and a spokesman, Peter Boogaard, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions about DHS’s research into airliner defense systems.
Spencer, the Embry-Riddle faculty member, said so few commercial planes are shot down that it probably doesn’t make sense to spend as much as it would take to protect them. With regard to the threat from weapons like the Buk, there’s little point in even copying the military with systems to warn the flight crew, he said.
“If you’re going to put equipment on an aircraft to try to detect a missile, but then the aircraft can’t avoid the missile anyway, have you really accomplished anything?” Spencer said.