It's a horrifying scenario: A lone terrorist hiding near a U.S. airport targets a passenger jet with a shoulder-fired missile. Beyond any immediate carnage, the inevitable ripple of fear could paralyze the travel industry and cripple the economy.
The Bush Administration ranks portable missiles -- some of which are thought to be in the hands of al Qaeda and other fanatic groups -- as a leading terrorist menace. In September, 2005, the State Dept. warned of "a serious potential threat to passenger air travel [and] the commercial aviation industry."
But at the Homeland Security Dept., the alarm is more tempered. The agency is winding down a three-year study of how to adapt military antimissile technology to civilian planes. Contractors doing the research say results so far are promising. But as Homeland Security phases out its antimissile research budget -- to $4.8 million for 2007, down from $109 million this year -- the agency shows little interest in buying the gear. "Until we know whether this approach is a good approach or not, I think that that is something we just are not prepared to promise money for," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told the House Homeland Security Committee last month.
Another reason for Chertoff's hesitation: The roughly 30 shoulder-fired missile attacks on civilian aircraft in the past three decades were all in overseas hot spots. "We do take it seriously, but we base [Homeland Security's position] on the risk assessment of, 'Could it happen here?"' says Brian Doyle, a department spokesman.
Such ambivalence worries skeptics of every stripe. Alane Kochems, a national security analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says that without Administration leadership, Congress isn't likely to take the initiative and fund defense systems for American planes. Homeland Security "doesn't have clear policy guidelines, and they're not putting a lot of money out there because they don't quite know what they want," she says.
Representative Steve J. Israel (D-N.Y.), asserts that intelligence experts "all agree that this is one of the most glaring vulnerabilities to our homeland security, and the White House and DHS insist on wishful thinking that it's not." Shoulder-fired missiles typically weigh less than 40 pounds and can be hidden in a golf bag. They can fire up to 23,000 feet, and tens of thousands are unaccounted for around the world. Israel has introduced a bill to force Homeland Security to set a schedule for buying missile-defense devices, but the legislation has little momentum.
It was at Congress' behest in 2004 that the agency began testing military technology on commercial jets. Sensors attached to a plane's hull detect an incoming heat-seeking missile and trigger lasers or flares, an alternate heat source that throws the missile off course.
In two studies for Homeland Security, contractors Northrop Grumman Corp. (NOC ) and BAE Systems Inc. are testing the system on working cargo planes -- so far with no significant glitches, the companies say. Homeland Security will release early results this spring. "This is an operationally effective system. We've done a lot of work in making it commercially viable," says Stephen duMont, BAE's director of commercial aircraft programs. If the government mandated the technology, BAE and Northrop would expect to profit by selling it.
Homeland Security's Chertoff has warned that the steep cost of defending against missiles would have to be shared by taxpayers and the airline industry. That has made the financially weak industry an opponent of the technology, although air carriers have kept a low profile on the sensitive issue. At an estimated $1 million a plane, it would cost $7 billion to equip the U.S. passenger fleet's 6,800 aircraft. Added maintenance and fuel costs (because of the weight and drag of the gear) could tack on $27 billion or more over 20 years, according to Santa Monica (Calif.) researcher RAND Corp.
"We think the better choice is to continue to work to get those missiles out of the hands of the bad guys and secure airport perimeters," says David A. Castelveter, vice-president of the Air Transport Assn., a trade group. El Al Israel Airlines made a different choice. In December it said it would become the first carrier to install the technology. Five of its planes have been outfitted with the devices.
By Lorraine Woellert