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As the man-portable (MANPAD) surface-to-air missile threat persists, Israel is now taking additional steps to safeguard civilian aircraft. The Jerusalem Postis reporting that Israel’s security cabinet has approved a new, Israeli-made defensive system for protecting commercial aircraft against missile attacks. Development of the system will begin next year. According to the Post, the research effort will also include technology that will make it more difficult for hijacked or unidentified aircraft to penetrate Israeli airspace.
As with many announcements from Israeli government, this one is deliberately vague. Reading between the lines, it appears the Israelis will install a more advanced missile defense system on civilian aircraft in the near future. Additionally, the government is also allocating money to “fortify” jetliners with existing technology, already found on Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft. That indicates that all of Israel’s civilian aircraft will receive missile protection gear over the near term, giving them the self-defense capability already found on El Al jetliners. The more advanced missile defense system will eventually be retrofitted on Israel’s commercial fleet, once development and testing is complete.
The decision to put defensive suites on more jetliners was apparently prompted by terror groups’ plans to target Israeli aircraft, and the availability of more advanced MANPADS. Existing self-defense systems are designed primarily for older, first and second-generation missiles, like the Russian-designed SA-7 and SA-14. Most of the self-protection suites utilize sensors that detect a missile launch, then direct a burst of laser energy to confuse or blind the MANPAD seeker.
However, some of the existing systems are less effective against more advanced shoulder-fired SAMs, notably the Russian SA-18 and the American.-made STINGER. While export of the latest versions of the STINGER have been strictly controlled by the U.S. government, the SA-18 is believed to be widely available on the world arms market, and some of the missiles could be in the hand of terrorist organizations. With longer range, better maneuverability and the ability to defeat some defensive systems, the threat posed by the SA-18 (and other, newer MANPADS) clearly influenced the Israeli decision.
While Israel’s commercial aviation fleet is only a fraction of the United States, the expanded defensive effort won’t be cheap. Outfitting El Al’s 29 jetliners reportedly cost at least $1.1 million per aircraft, and installing missile defense systems on other commercial aircraft will be equally expensive. Additional funding will be required for outfitting those aircraft with the more advanced defensive suite, which enters development in 2008. Apparently, the Israelis believe it’s money well-spent, given the potential economic and psychological impact of losing a civilian airliner to a terrorist MANPAD.
Meanwhile, the effort to provide a similar level of protection to U.S. jetliners is inching forward. The Department of Homeland Security is evaluating prototype systems developed by British Aerospace (BAE) and Northrup Grumman, but so far, that equipment has not met reliability standards mandated by DHS. Incidentally, there is no indication that the Israeli systems are better than those being tested in the United States, but Tel Aviv decided the threat warrants an immediate deployment, instead of waiting for more reliable equipment.
From our perspective, it’s a small price to pay for defending the flying public against a growing threat. Unfortunately, the leisurely pace of our development and evaluation efforts means it will be years before passengers on U.S. carriers have the same level of protection afforded to those flying El Al, or other Israeli airlines. Unlike DHS, the Israelis understand that the MANPAD threat to airliners can’t wait for a better or more cost effective system. We can only pray that our bureaucrats–and airline passengers–don’t have to learn that lesson the hard way.
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