Outsmarting Heat-Seeking Missiles

New technology will help the U.S. plug a vulnerability gap

Early on the morning of Jan. 31, 1991, an AC-130H gunship called Spirit 03 was providing air support to U.S. Marines battling Iraqi soldiers below. It was 14 days into the Gulf War, and though Spirit 03 was due to end its mission, the crew decided to stick around and help the Marines take out an Iraqi missile site. Spirit 03 finished the job at dawn but lost the cover of darkness. An Iraqi with a shoulder-fired missile took aim and shot. Spirit 03's 14 crew members were killed in the resulting crash, the Air Force's worst loss of the war.

The downing of Spirit 03 was a wake-up call to military strategists in Washington: They had to do more to protect air crews against the kind of portable, heat-seeking missiles that had proved so successful at downing Russian aircraft over Afghanistan during the 1980s--and were now within reach of just about every bad guy on the planet. To avoid these weapons, U.S. and allied planes stayed mostly above 15,000 feet in Bosnia and the recent Afghan war, with inevitable tradeoffs in providing support to troops.

So Pentagon planners have fast-tracked an experimental program begun by Britain's military. The result is a high-tech antimissile weapon now being installed on U.S. military aircraft. The devices, called directional infrared countermeasures--or Dircm in Pentagon-speak--could see their first action in the looming Iraq conflict. They could also be used to thwart terrorist attacks on commercial planes.

Here's how the systems work: Sensors on the plane detect the plume of an incoming missile and relay that information to processors placed behind turrets on either side of the aircraft. These chips rotate lasers housed in the turrets to fire directly at the incoming missile, instantly creating an alternate heat source powerful enough to fool the missile and deflect it away from the plane. Total time from detection to interception: 2 to 10 seconds.

The systems cost about $2 million per plane, and two big defense companies are vying for contracts. Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC ) is supplying the Air Force, which is installing them on C-130, C-17, and KC-135 transport aircraft. BAE Systems is supplying the Army with a test version for helicopters. And the Navy is testing versions for fighter aircraft.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington are contemplating threats to commercial jets. Such dangers were thrown into frightening relief last November, when terrorists with shoulder-mounted weapons fired on an Israeli airliner in Kenya. And this was not the first such incident: In October, 1998, rebel forces in the Congo downed a Boeing 727 in Kindu, killing 38 passengers and three crew members.

With such incidents in mind, on Feb. 5, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) proposed legislation that would have the federal government pay to fit every commercial jet in the U.S. with a version of Dircm technology. "Shoulder-fired missiles are a serious threat to our airlines, our economy, and the personal safety of every American airline passenger," she said. "We can take a giant step forward in the defense of our homeland." She estimates that in large volumes, the system's cost would fall to $1 million per plane, or about $7 billion for the nation's 6,800 commercial airliners.

So far, airlines aren't enthusiastic--especially if they get stuck with part of the cost. They already face outlays of about $4 billion a year to reinforce cockpit doors, impose more rigorous background checks on employees, and beef up plane inspections and airport security. "This subject is best addressed by our government," says Michael Wascom, a spokesperson for the Air Transport Assn.

Airlines aren't the only ones raising objections. Joel Feldschuh, chairman and CEO of consulting firm GS-3 (Ganden Security Services Solutions) in Arlington, Va., and former CEO of El Al Israel Airlines, says the money would be better spent pursuing the terrorists. "The best way to tackle terror is to attack it," he says. "When you put most of your money on defense measures, it means you are raising your hands."

Airlines, meanwhile, must be careful of their image, notes John Knowles, publisher of a newsletter on electronic warfare. "No one wants to show customers how vulnerable they are." Unfortunately, terrorists are already doing that.

By Christopher Palmeri in Los Angeles, with Stan Crock in Washington and Stanley Holmes in Seattle

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