Missile Defense for Commercial Jets?

A British arms dealer and two other men were arrested Tuesday in an FBI sting after they tried to sell a shoulder-mounted missile to an undercover agent. Several congressmen used the news to promote their efforts to put missile defense systems on all commercial aircraft. What kind of missile defense can you put on a civilian jet?

There are tens if not hundreds of thousands of shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missiles available on international arms markets, including many Stinger missiles the United States provided to Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s. The arms dealer caught on Tuesday had planned to sell 50 such missiles to his contact in the United States for a total of $5 million. The most common are variations on the Russian-designed SA series, including the SA-7 and more modern SA-18. These missiles, including the Stinger and the SA-18 confiscated by the FBI, are heat-seeking weapons designed to lock onto an aircraft’s engine exhaust. The defense industry calls them man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

Military aircraft have employed missile defense countermeasures for decades. The simplest way to avoid a missile is to trick it into chasing something else. Since most MANPADS are heat-seeking, the obvious way to distract the missile’s guidance system is to produce competing sources of heat by firing off flares or other decoys. Unfortunately, civilian aircraft flying over populated areas can’t drop high-incendiary devices to protect themselves, since the countermeasures might incinerate more lives than they would save.

New research in the field has focused on laser-based systems that actually target the missile and “blind” its infrared sensors. These classified systems are thought to be in place on some U.S. military planes, and some have even emerged on the international market. At the Paris Air Show in June, a Russian manufacturer showcased its laser-based defensive system, which can be attached to commercial planes in the form of one or more 600-pound pods.

All of this technology is expensive, not only to develop but also to adapt for the safety-obsessed world of civilian aviation. Congress has allocated $60 million to the Department of Homeland Security for research into adapting laser defense technologies for civilian use, and companion bills in the House and Senate seek to mandate airline missile defense by law. Current estimates put the cost of such systems at $1 million to $3 million per plane, which would add up to several billion if all 6,800 planes in the U.S. commercial fleet were upgraded.

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Explainer thanks A.R. “Trey” Hodgkins of AOC-The Electronic Warfare & Information Operations Association.