Union Tribune

November 15, 2003

Proposals sought for airliner-protection systems


WASHINGTON With a growing threat from portable anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of terrorists, aerospace firms are lining up to sell the Department of Homeland Security high-tech systems designed to protect commercial airliners.

The department will accept proposals for defensive systems until the end of the month, said department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

He said the agency will then offer a contract to one or more firms for the first phase of a two-step program that could award a company a multibillion-dollar deal to equip all or part of the huge fleet of U.S.-owned jetliners.

The review and testing of the systems are expected to take about two years, he said.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who has unsuccessfully pushed legislation to require all airliners to install the protective systems, believes Homeland Security's timeline is much too long, aides said. Boxer's bill called for installation to start by year-end, beginning with the 300 airliners in the Civil Reserve Air Fleet that the Pentagon uses for military missions overseas.

But the proposal faces questions about whether systems designed to defend military aircraft, usually in rural combat zones, can be operated safely in urban areas, by civilian pilots and mechanics. There's also the issue of whether the cost will be acceptable to cash-strapped airlines.

A Northrop Grumman official who briefed reporters said its laser-based system, already in service on military aircraft, could be installed on the reserve fleet planes in 28 months. It could be done faster, but at higher cost, Northrop's Robert del Boca said.

Del Boca estimated it could take nine months to get Federal Aviation Administration approval for a system for commercial aircraft.

Boxer's aides suggested the FAA certification process could be completed during the review of the proposed defensive system.

There also is a dispute over whether the government or the airlines would bear the cost of the defensive system. Del Boca said Northrop's system could cost from $1 million to $1.9 million per aircraft, depending on the number equipped. A Raytheon spokesman said its system could cost about $700,000 or less.

To illustrate the danger, del Boca estimated that 600,000 portable missiles exist worldwide and are available on the black market. Ninety percent of aircraft shot down in combat in the past 25 years were hit by these weapons, which home in on the heat of a plane's engine exhaust, he said.

The Army Chinook helicopter shot down in Iraq last week, killing 16 soldiers, might have been hit by such a missile, though it had a defensive system that uses high-temperature flares to distract the infrared homer.

The Northrop system, produced in Rolling Meadows, Ill., and a system being developed by Lockheed Martin in Akron, Ohio, use laser energy to jam a missile's seeker.

Raytheon is working with an Israeli firm to develop a system that dispenses very thin metallic wafers that oxidize in the air, producing enough heat to distract a missile but not enough to endanger people or objects on the ground, a spokesman said.