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DHS to fit airliners with laser beam defences

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The US Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that it will mount testbed anti-missile defence kit on three airliners this year, in order to assess how it affects performance in the commercial aviation environment.

Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reports that the DHS will pay defence/aerospace giant BAE Systems $29m to install its "JetEye" equipment on a trio of American Airlines planes.

JetEye detects the exhaust plume of incoming missiles using electro-optic sensors. It is designed to counter infrared-seeking weapons which home on the aircraft's own hot jet exhausts, which it does by focusing a suitable laser on the missile. This dazzles the missile seeker head, causing it to lose lock on the aeroplane.

Shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles of the kind thought likely to be employed by terrorists normally use infrared homing. Weapons of this type are not common in the way that unguided RPG-type rockets are, and they require more skillful use and maintenance. However they are widely enough distributed that security agencies see them as a plausible future threat, perhaps even in Western countries. Such small, lightweight missiles are not effective above 10,000 feet or so, and as a result airliners are normally vulnerable to them only during landing and takeoff.

Such MANPADS (MAN Portable Air Defence Systems, so called as they were originally designed for use by ground troops against enemy strike aircraft) have already been used by terrorists and insurgents. An Israeli charter flight was targeted using MANPADS in Kenya in 2002, and a British military helicopter was shot down over Basra in 2006. Going further back, the CIA supplied large numbers of effective "Stinger" MANPADS to hardline Islamic mujahideen in Afghanistan during the 1980s, for use against Russian aircraft.

Nowadays, the likeliest threat according to intelligence analysts is the latest Russian makes, in particular SA-14s thought to have been supplied to Iran. It is theorised that these weapons have been passed on to Shi'ite groups in Iraq, and perhaps other locations.

It is routine for all flights, civil and military, to take precautions against MANPADS at airports in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, thus far only military aircraft have had countermeasures fitted. Military flights often make use of flares rather than lasers, but this isn't seen as practical for routine civil use.

JetEye type gear has its detractors. Aerospace Daily & Defense Report quotes Steven Lott, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, as saying:

"There is no industry support for anti-missile devices on commercial aircraft ... MANPADS remain a very serious threat to aircraft but these short-sighted, technologically unproven projects could potentially bankrupt many of the world's airlines."

The cost of kitting out airliners worldwide with JetEye-type gear has been estimated at $20bn. IATA would prefer to see other options investigated, such as better patrolling of airport perimeters. This has its difficulties, however, as MANPADS can strike from horizontal ranges of 5km in some circumstances.

The upcoming American Airlines JetEye testing will not involve any actual missile engagements; operational testing has already been done over the past couple of years. Rather, the idea is to assess effects on fuel economy, maintenance costs and so on, and thus to gain an idea of the technology's commercial impact.

The DHS is probably hoping that the results can be used to build a case for requiring airlines to fit MANPADS protection. By the sound of it, the airline industry hopes just the opposite.®

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