Analysis / Ben FrankelThe race to develop civilian aircraft defense heats up

Published 2 December 2005

The race to develop a system to defend civilian aircraft from shoulder-mounted missiles is heating up. Little wonder here: There are about 800,000 such missiles around the world. Many of these missiles are in the arsenals of regular armies, but a very large number of them are unaccounted for, and most of the twenty-seven known terrorist organizations around the world are in possession of such missiles. Moreover, these missiles, which may be purchased on the black market for between $25,000 and $60,000, are easy to conceal and transport, and any 15-year old may launch them with little training. Civilian aircraft offer terrorists juicy targets: First, there are many targets. American airlines alone operate about 6,800 such aircraft, and when we add European and Asian operators, the number gets closer to 11,000. Second, these lumbering airplanes are extremely vulnerable as they take off or approach landing. Third, these planes go to places in the world where security is lax, discipline is low, corruption is rampant, and terrorist sympathizers are many.

There are two different approaches to defending civilian aircraft. The first calls for placing the defensive system on board the airplane, and companies such as BAE, Northrop Grumman, and Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) lead this camp. The second approach calls for creating a defensive envelope around each of the airports capable of accommodating large civilian jets, and Raytheon is a leading actor in this camp.

The companies representing the on-board approach say that it is impossible to defend against surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or shoulder-mounted missiles (which some call man-portable SAMs) by creating ground-based defensive envelopes around airports. The range and altitude of modern man-portable SAMs threaten a very large zone — 25 miles and up to about 12,000 feet around any airport — and it is not possible to make sure that nothing is launched from within that zone, especially since the portable system can be