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DHS ponders microwave raygun missile defences at airports

Electropulse blasters will keep skies safe

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The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will consider fitting high-power microwave electropulse rayguns at US airports, in order to defend against the threat of terrorists firing portable anti-aircraft missiles at airliners.

American defence heavyweight Raytheon would partner with Israel's Rafael and Kongsberg of Norway to provide the technology, according to a report in Flight International. The proposed kit is known as "Vigiliant Eagle", and is competing for DHS securo-dollars with defensive systems that could be fitted to the airliners themselves - for instance BAE Systems' JetEye.

"I really don't think the airlines are going to want to add more stuff [to the airliner] that's going to add weight," Raytheon exec Michael Booen told Flight.

Vigilant Eagle, unlike its rivals, would be sited at the airport. Light, portable anti-aircraft missiles of the type used by terrorists/insurgents lack the ability to hit a jet at cruising altitude, so such attacks would need to be mounted close to takeoff or landing.

Vigilant Eagle would detect any missiles fired using a network of infrared cameras to pick out the hot rocket exhaust plume. The system would then focus an intense microwave beam on the flying weapon, generated by a so-called Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) of the type used in the latest fighter radars.

The microwave beam would not be intense enough to melt or explode the missile, but Raytheon are confident that it would reliably scramble the circuitry of the guidance systems, sending the weapon veering off course. The company says that successful tests have been carried out.

On the issue of possible effects on airliner systems - or even people - Raytheon insist that Vigilant Eagle is safe as houses.

"Transmitted electromagnetic fields are well within Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards" says the company spec sheet (pdf). Booen told Flight that the wavelengths involved are the same used by commercial cell phones, which - apparently - means there is no risk to airliner avionics.

Some elements of Vigilant Eagle have already been tried out at "an undisclosed US airport", it appears, and Raytheon would now like $10m from the DHS for a live-fire trial. ®

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