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US sees first airliner flight with laser defences

BAE promises 'no live fire testing'

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US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) trials of laser missile-dazzler defences on airliners have passed another milestone, with armaments maker BAE Systems announcing that its "JetEye" gear has made its first scheduled passenger flight. The JetEye-equipped plane, a Boeing 767 operated by American Airlines, made a routine trip from New York to Los Angeles.

"BAE Systems worked closely with DHS and the airline industry to develop an effective response to potential terrorist threats," said Burt Keirstead, JetEye program director for BAE Systems in New Hampshire. "It took a combination of ingenuity and perseverance to get to this point, and everyone involved is proud of the results."

Two further American 767s will also be equipped with JetEye for the trial, which is designed to find out the effects of the gear on airline operations and finances. The planes will fly with the new equipment until 2009, and BAE is keen to emphasise that "there will be no live-fire testing during these flights".

Many in the airline industry fear that rules requiring passenger flights to be so equipped would lead to unacceptable costs. It is feared that JetEye type systems - in addition to their own not inconsiderable purchase and maintenance price - might adversely affect aircraft fuel economy. The missile defences might also be unreliable, meaning that airliners would spend more time on the ground not earning money. Industry bodies have previously estimated the total cost of protecting the worldwide transport fleet at $20bn or more.

The threat that JetEye is intended to guard against is that from shoulder-fired homing anti-aircraft missiles, so-called MANPADS (Man Portable Air Defence Systems). These are much more difficult to make than basic antitank rockets, as the missile must be faster and able to track the hot jet exhausts of its target. JetEye works by tracking the missile's own exhaust trail and dazzling its seeker head using an infrared laser.

Owing to their relative sophistication, MANPADS - especially modern ones with decent performance - are rare and difficult to obtain as terrorist weapons go. Furthermore, as a MANPADS can generally reach only to 10,000-foot altitudes, it is only a threat to an airliner during landing and takeoff.

Nonetheless, many Western intelligence agencies believe such weapons to be a credible threat to airliners. Israeli flights were targeted above Kenya in 2002, and a British military helicopter was shot down above Basra in 2006. It is believed that Russia has sold fairly modern SA-14 MANPADS to Iran, and that these may since have been passed on. It is normal for Iran to supply weapons to various nations and groups, including Syria and Shi'ite organisations in both Lebanon and Iraq. One of these SA-14s was reportedly used to shoot down the British Lynx above Basra.

Even so, MANPADS attacks remain rare even in the conflict zones of the Middle East. In the US and Europe they have rarely even been rumoured - though there was a MANPADS intelligence scare in London during 2003, resulting in troops deploying at Heathrow.

For now at any rate, you'd have to be exceptionally unlucky to be in an airliner targeted by a terrorist MANPADS - and then just as lucky to be in one of the few equipped with JetEye. The DHS and BAE plainly see both these things becoming more common. ®

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