AnalysisPresident's budget shortchanges missile defense of airlines

Published 9 February 2006

The defense of commercial airlines from shoulder-mounted missiles appeared to be one of the biggest homeland security projects of the next three years, but you wouldn’t know it from Bush’s budget proposal: In fiscal 2006 the project received $108 million; in fiscal 2007, $5 million

For a while these past eighteen months it appeared that one of the major homeland security programs would be the defense of commercial airlines against shoulder-mounted missiles (or, as they are called, MANPADS, for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems). Two companies, BAE and Northrop Grumman, received forty-five million dollars each to show that they can turn the systems they have built for the military for that purpose (BAE’s laser-based, Northrop’s infrared-based) into systems suitable for commercial airlines. Judging by the DHS budget submitted to Congress Monday, however, it now appears that the airline defense project has been put on the back burner.

In fiscal 2006 DHS allocated $108.9 million for the program. Bush’s spending plan would provide only $4.9 million.

The program’s proponents in the industry and on Capitol Hill were disappointed by the proposed funding level. Industry sources and congressional supporters of the program are bitterly disappointed. Representative Steve Israel (D-N.Y) called the administration’s proposed budget nothing more than “lip service.” He continued, “They’ve made a decision to effectively kill the counter-MANPADS program without waiting for the independent technical studies that are due to Congress at the end of the year. “I think the administration is being dangerously premature.” Charles McQueary, DHS undersecretary for science and technology, said that the funding was to close out the current work on the program, and beyond that it is a “decision for Congress and the president to make.”

Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems worked on converting laser-based technology deployed on military aircraft to be used for commercial aircraft. Both companies have completed the second phase of the program and showed that the system can be installed on a commercial plane and tested during a simulated missile attack. Both are about to begin the third phase in which the system will be mounted on air cargo jets during regular flights. The testing of the technology has yielded mixed results. Of key concern is the systems’ meantime between failures, meaning the average intervals which elapse between one maintenance session and another. The current meantime is about 1,200 hours, fare short than the 3,000 hours DHS and the airlines expect (military aircraft fly much less than civilian aircraft, so shorter failure meantime is less of a problem).

Spokesmen for the two companies were cautious about the meaning of the small amount the president requested for the project. Steve duMont, BAE’s business development director for commercial aircraft programs, said the company’s current work on improving the system would require more than the existing funding. “Clearly there would be an opportunity to continue this effort in [fiscal 2007], and it would probably exceed [the proposed funding], in my estimation,” he said. Jack Pledger, Northrop’s director of infrared countermeasures business development, said the proposed budget for fiscal 2007 made sense if it signaled the conclusion of the project’s development phase. “It’s not surprising that at some point the department would look to be completing the development program,” he said.

Representative Israel was less charitable. “The threat’s not going away, but the administration is pushing the solution away,” he said.

-read more in Zack Phillips’s CQ report (sub. req.)