Missile protection for planes too costly to install
United States anti-missile technology is still too costly to install on America's passenger airlines to guard against Al Qaeda using shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down the planes, according to a study.
The RAND Corporation study says laser-based jammer technology, which is used mainly in military aircraft to thwart shoulder-fired missile attacks, is not yet practical to use on commercial airplanes.
The report says it would cost about $A14.3 billion plus about $2.7 billion a year in operational costs to install missile countermeasures on the nation's 6,800 commercial aircraft.
"Given the significant costs involved with operating countermeasures based upon current technology, we believe a decision to install such systems aboard commercial airliners should be postponed until the technologies can be developed and shown to be more compatible in a commercial environment," RAND said.
"Al Qaeda and its affiliates have both the motive and the means to bring down US commercial aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles.
"No such attempt has yet been made against a US carrier, but given the measures being taken to preclude 9/11-style attacks, the use of [shoulder-fired missiles] will unavoidably become more attractive to terrorists."
RAND researchers found many unresolved questions about how the anti-missile systems would operate on commercial airlines, including issues such as the number of false alarms and whether attackers could find ways to circumvent the safeguards.
Last year the US Department of Homeland Security awarded $58.7 million contracts each to Northrop Grumman Corporation and BAE Systems to design separate proposals to re-engineer the military system so anti-missile systems could be used on passenger aircraft.
A Homeland Security spokesman says the defence companies are about one-third finished with the effort.
Donald Tighe, of the department's Science and Technology section, says the two main priorities are to find ways to reduce costs and improve the operational integrity of the systems, for example by decreasing the number of false alarms.
Concern over the possibility that attackers might use the shoulder-fired missiles to shoot down a plane grew after the September 11 hijackings and after shoulder-fired missiles nearly hit an Israeli airliner with 261 passengers taking off from Kenya in November 2002.
RAND says more than 700,000 missiles have been produced since the 1970s.
Thousands of the missiles are unaccounted for and some types can be bought in arms bazaars in parts of the Middle East and Central Asia for as little as $6,500.
The biggest domestic airlines are aware of the threat but have been skeptical of the plan to protect commercial planes with an anti-missile system.
In addition to equipment and installation costs, airlines were concerned with maintenance expenses and liability at a time when they are struggling financially.
The US industry is expected to post losses of more than $2.6 billion for 2004.
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