Union Tribune

January 7, 2004

3 firms to work on missile-defense proposals for commercial airliners


WASHINGTON Teams led by three defense and airline firms, including Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman, will propose systems to defend commercial airliners against shoulder-fired missiles, homeland security officials announced yesterday.

Northrop Grumman, United Airlines and British-owned BAE Systems each are negotiating $2 million federal contracts to develop plans to adapt military missile-defense systems for civilian use. After the six-month design phase, federal officials will determine whether a system is suited for further testing and demonstration.

It was the latest move in a two-year, $122 million effort that could result in equipping flights with laser systems, flares or other technology to deflect heat-seeking missiles fired by terrorists.

"We want to be in a position to make a decision at the end of a couple of years on whether and what we're going to deploy onto the commercial air fleet," said Penrose C. "Parney" Albright, assistant secretary for science and technology at the Department of Homeland Security.

Fears about the vulnerability of airplanes to such an attack were stoked by al-Qaeda's attempt to shoot down an Israeli jetliner in November 2002, using a Russian-made shoulder-fired missile.

Officials said that the contract announcement was not related to the current high alert for terrorism. The government "does not have any credible specific intelligence" about an impending missile threat to U.S. commercial aircraft, said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security.

Many terrorism experts are troubled about the accessibility of the missiles to terrorist groups, and some critics accuse the Bush administration of not acting quickly enough to counter the threat. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is a vocal advocate of requiring commercial jets to be equipped with defensive systems.

"The senator is pleased that (Homeland Security) is moving forward with their plan, but she feels their plan simply doesn't go far enough or fast enough," said Boxer spokesman David Sandretti. "The bottom line under their plan is that no commercial airplanes will be protected until at least 2006, and that's not good enough."

Homeland Security officials argue that systems suited for the military cannot be readily adapted for use by civilian aircraft, which operate under much different conditions. Among the top concerns are cost, frequency of maintenance and the safety of using the defensive measures in civilian areas.

Albright called the two-year timeline "aggressive."

"This is an extraordinarily difficult problem," he said.