Airplane Defense Security Trade-Off

It’s nice to see the government actually making security trade-offs. From the Associated Press:

Outfitting every U.S. commercial passenger plane with anti-missile systems would be a costly and impractical defense against terrorists armed with shoulder-fired rockets, according to a study released Tuesday.

Researchers said it could cost nearly $40 billion over 20 years to deploy defense technology on the country’s 6,800 passengers jets. By comparison, the federal government currently spends roughly $4.4 billion a year on all transportation security.

The Rand study also cited the unreliability of the system, and the problems of false alarms.

Identifying terrorism security countermeasures that aren’t worth it…maybe it’s the start of a trend.

Posted on January 26, 2005 at 8:42 AM19 Comments


piglet January 26, 2005 9:21 AM

“Identifying terrorism security countermeasures that aren’t worth it…maybe it’s the start of a trend.”

Sorry Bruce, but you are being naive. News like that are not concerned with “security trade-off”. They have a clear purpose: to spread FUD, to make people panic about the prospect that their plane might be shot down at any time. It’s not that this is a serious concern, or that the idea to equip commercial planes with weapons systems would make any sense. The important thing is that people are frightened.

kanegs January 26, 2005 9:28 AM

Does anyone remember that right after 9/11 there was talk of setting up a system to shoot down hijacked planes before they could strike important buildings. Such a system would be at odds with installing Electronic Counter Measures on all commercial aircraft.

Israel Torres January 26, 2005 9:40 AM

Hmmm, let’s see…
777Pilot: We have a bogey, countermeasures activated.

USAFOX6: Team Fox, 777Commercial has activated countermeasures… activating counter-countermeasures!

777Pilot: counter-counter-countermeasures activated!

USAFOX6: counter-counter-counter-countermeasures activated!

777Pilot: 777Commercial to USAFOX6 You just sank my terrorplane, your measures outreach ours by a few billion dollars!

USAFOX6: hoo-ah!

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2005 11:28 AM

The issue cited in the article is how to defend passenger flights against shoulder rockets.

I don’t know why you would call this a security trade-off, as opposed to a cost-benefit analysis; an expensive technology does little to solve a problem so it will not be used.

DHS and the Rand both arrived at the obvious conclusion that onboard anti-missle systems on passenger aircraft would be an ineffective defense against shoulder-fired rockets. It doesn’t help that it costs a huge amount, but that doesn’t probably weigh as heavily on the DHS as we would like to think.

It is more important to note:
“The study also suggested that reducing the missile threat involved other countermeasures such as working with foreign governments to slow the proliferation of missiles and helping local authorities set up security perimeters around airports.”

Securing an airport perimeter, or trying to reduce arms proliferation, are more likely to involve a true discussion of trade-offs.

Israel Torres January 26, 2005 11:52 AM

Take for example John Wayne Airport, which is dead center between the 405 and 55 fwys. The landing strip is right over the 405 and due to sound restrictions the aircrafts must maneuver into a rapid descent zipping right over the traffic. It wouldn’t take much for someone in a pickup truck to launch a basic RPG at the hull to cause catastrophic damage. Even with countermeasures on the aircraft, which would probably be suited for longer alert and dispatch it would be too late to react. Even with countermeasures around the perimeter of the airport there wouldn’t be enough time for verification and countermeasures to react. This example alone proves that there will always be a risk regardless of the general idea of security. Everything must be taken on case-by-case basis, which is always very expensive. For some reason we (US) have built our security on being reactive rather than proactive… and we pay greatly in penalties.

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2005 12:24 PM

Sounds like you are trying to “scare” people into taking “proactive measures”? I think that was piglet’s point. The article states that no more than 7500 shoulder-fired missiles are now “outside government controls”. What would we lose as citizens if the government tried to seriously reduce that number, even in the right-wing militant stronghold of Orange County?

Neepster January 26, 2005 12:30 PM

I regard the U.S. government’s press releases on this with complete amusement, since the data (aside from the obvious government coverup) is pretty overwhelming that TWA Flight 800 was shot down by a Chinese copy of a Stinger MANPADS. Anyone who spends any amount of time looking into it comes up with pretty much the same answer. Even if you actually BELIEVE the FAA’s ludicrious and impossible flight simulations of Flight 800 and hence their “spontaneously exploding fuel tank theory”, there have been more than 100 attacks on commercial flights around the world with MANPADS. As such, it is only a matter of time before someone (else) shoots down a US airliner with such a weapon. Maybe it is too expensive to put simple countermeasures on all commercial aircraft, but it might be worth it to do it on the larger ones, which are most likely to be terrorist targets (B747s, 767s, etc). We do it for C-130 cargo planes in the military, hence we can do it for SOME commercial aircraft. The potential cost of NOT doing it is another Flight 800 that the government won’t be able to cover up and the resulting destruction of the US airline industry. What would be the cost of that?

Israel Torres January 26, 2005 12:35 PM

Not so much “scare” as to think about things before they happen. There is no reason to fear something that is anticipated. We seem to be on this sliding scale of Freedom, but Freedom for who and what? The problem becomes a lot more complex and this complexity is why things can’t be simply stamped with yes and no, as well as why a lot of things don’t and won’t ever make sense to someone that hasn’t driven the complexity themselves. The basic elements of Freedom and Security should work with one another and build upon one another, but are being used to wipe each other out.

Zwack January 26, 2005 12:38 PM

Davi, I agree that this is a cost-benefit analysis, but it is also a security trade-off. The decision is being made that the (low) added security of these counter measures is not worth the (high) cost. This is a trade-off both of Cost/Benefit and Cost/Security. Call it what you will it sounds like the right decision is being made… In this case.

I don’t expect them to be able to keep this up.


Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2005 12:50 PM

I guess you are correct. If it acceptable to use “trade-off” analysis when considering only financial costs ($40bn) of technology then it is the same thing as cost-benefit. I am just unfamiliar with people saying “the trade-off of this program is that we spend a lot of money”.

According to the article “So far, no U.S. carriers have been attacked by missiles. But two shoulder-fired rockets launched by al-Qaida-linked terrorists narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet in Kenya in November 2002. Since the 1970s. more than 40 aircraft have been hit by shoulder-fired missiles, killing 600 people.” It does not specify whether the numbers are civilian or military aircraft. The issue is not whether to do something or nothing, it is how to manage risk most effectively where Risk = Valued Assets/Countermeasures1 x Severity of Vulnerabilities/Countermeasures2 x Criticality of Threats/Countermeasures3

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2005 12:59 PM

Here is another take on the situation:
“In 1973 the terrorist group ‘Black September’ smuggled 14 SA-7’s into Italy to try and shoot down Israel PM Meir’s plane. They were caught only minutes before; one terrorist was holding a missile behind a hot dog stand near the airport.” So if El-Al has faced major man-portable air-defense missile incidents, have they subsequently invested in anti-missle technology or directed their efforts elsewhere (e.g. banning suspicious hot dog stands near airports)?

Ne January 26, 2005 2:31 PM

Ok, I agree that the issue is risk vs. rewards vs cost. My concern is that the risk is being understated and the rewards understated and the costs overstated. Certainly developing some sort of laser futzing system to automagically mess up the seeker head of a IR MANPADS is going to cost a lot (especially since I doubt the US military will give away their current systems). Maintaining it in perfect order on every commercial aircraft will cost even more. However there are intermediate steps that could buy some benefit and wouldn’t cost nearly as much. IR flares dropped in the 6 seconds between when the pilots on TWA 800 saw the missile launch and when the missle impacted would probably have been enough to save that plane. And putting an IR flare system on major planes (i.e. >250 passengers) wouldn’t cost that much. You might argue that it wouldn’t be WORTH that much either since it would depend on the pilots noticing the SAM launch, but there are undoubtedly things that could be done to improve pilot recognition and reaction.

The alternative of extending the security perimeter of all major airports to prevent a MANPADS launch seems unlikely to me. TWA 800 was shot down (if it was) by a person on a speed boat off the coast of Long Island. It would be infeasible to extend the security perimeter of all major airports by the amount required to stop the latest MANPADS systems. We are talking miles and miles here and many of those flight paths are over water or countryside that would be relatively easy to get into and out of. Sure, we COULD close it all off (at what cost), but what will be done here is likely to be the bare minimum. Like all the rest of the air security things being done after 9/11, we will get an illusion, not real security.

Jimbo January 26, 2005 3:08 PM

I seem to remember two things – one that Isreal pretended publicly for years to have counter-measures, when in fact they didn’t. Not a bad security move.

And two, isn’t there some argument as to whether a manpad would actually bring down a commercial plane. Remember that DHL plane that got hit after takeoff with a missile in Iraq in 2003? It didn’t go down.

Davi Ottenheimer January 26, 2005 3:25 PM


That sounds about right: “the flight patterns of commercial jets leave airplanes under 10,000 miles (and within range of the missiles) for 20-30 nautical miles, on predictable routes putting them within range of shoulder-fired missiles for more than 300 square miles around a runway” (

So can someone explain the “trade-offs” with anti-missle devices other than massive cost and poor reliability? Again these seem to translate to an “ineffective” countermeasure that isn’t ready for prime-time, rather than one that has any big trade-off. Similar to the patriot missle or star-wars debate, no? If the thing actually worked as intended, it might be worth considering.

Compare that with actual “trade-offs” to consider when trying to create a 300 square mile perimeter, or tracking and managing every portable explosive capable of destroying mass transit (loss of privacy, loss of property, etc.)

Matti Kinnunen January 28, 2005 1:10 AM

This country seems to be obsessed about security, but nobody ever defines the term “security”. So, let me try. “Security” comes from “secure”. The opposite of “secure” is, well, “dangerous”. Thus, make enhancing security means, by and large, removing danger. But danger of what? I would say danger of premature, unnatural death. Therefore, all invesments in security should be measured in terms of number of avoided premature deaths per dollar.

So far, terrorists have killed approximately 3000 persons in USA. After 9/11 at least 150000 persons have been killed in road traffic in USA. Some 50000 have been killed in shootings. According to CIA statistics, quoted by Kristof in NY Times, some 60000 babies have died just because of the inefficiences etc of the US medical system (compared to e.g Singapore). The list of uncessary, avoidable deaths is much longer, but this may be enough. So, is waging “the war on terrorism” the most efficient way to increase security?
Or puttin anti-missile systems on commercial planes?

Israel Torres January 28, 2005 10:54 AM

The idea (selling point) with the “War on Terror” is to halt these (primitive yet effective) forms of terror from becoming common on US soil. Freedom from being Terrorized. Anything else is out of scope.

Arik January 30, 2005 5:47 PM

It’s not a numbers game, it’s an emotional game. And terrorism gets higher media rating.

The decisions involved are far from rational, because the terror inflicted by terrorism is not rational.

— Arik

Clive Robinson February 2, 2005 1:23 PM

With regard to Neepster’s comments, the recent news about the British Armed Forces Hurc that was shot down over Iraq indicates that these “protection” systems usually fail on slow moving aircraft.

Many years ago I was involved with regional “Civil Defence” and after the experiances of the British Army in Northan Ireland losing helicopters to heavy machine guns fired by the IRA we investigated if it was possible to bring down civilian aircraft with them.

The results where not encoraging one expert stated that “you could probably bring a jet airliner down with a brick if you could get it into the flight path on take off or landing, the trick would be to get it in the right place at the right time”.

The real issue is not “which wepons” to protect against but “how do you stop them being used”. The answer is unfortunatly not practical from a physical security standpoint, it is one of “intelegance” and political stand point.

Andre Weltman February 3, 2005 11:57 AM

Jimbo wrote on 26 January: “And two, isn’t there some argument as to whether a manpad would actually bring down a commercial plane. Remember that DHL plane that got hit after takeoff with a missile in Iraq in 2003? It didn’t go down.???

A late input to this thread: While it was correctly reported in the mass media that the DHL plane landed “safely??? (in the sense that the crew walked away from the wreck) it was not a trivial episode! Upon missile impact the Airbus instantly lost all hydraulics and a wing was dramatically on fire in the air. For a rather gripping account of how the crew managed to survive, see Despite the technical discussion, you don’t have to be a pilot to grasp the extreme danger they were in. (There’s also a similar “first person??? account by a crew member floating on the Web somewhere but I can’t find it right now.)

For photos of the DHL plane’s damage and a general summary, see and

“At altitude 8,000 feet, she was struck by one SAM-14 missile. All hydraulics were lost instantly, and the pilots had no flight controls as a result. The pilots had to resort to altering engine thrust to fly the aircraft. They brought her back to the airport once but lacked sufficient control to land, forcing a missed approach. After about 16 minutes more of flying with only adjustments to engine thrust to turn her and alter altitudes, she landed "heavily" on runway 33L…??? [and the airframe was damaged.]

In short, the DHL plane in 2003 was rather close to becoming the same as the famous 1989 Sioux City Iowa crash of United 232 that killed “only??? 111 of the 295 souls aboard (see; an amateur video of the fiery crash-landing is widely available, as is a fictional movie about the incident.) I make a comparison to that non-terrorist 1989 disaster merely as an especially vivid example of a commercial aircraft without any hydraulics.

Bottom line is that the DHL plane barely made it back to the airport, and only the fact that this incident occurred in Baghdad (and with only 3 souls aboard) allowed the story to be so smoothly “lost??? to most US news consumers. If this same event had involved a passenger flight in the U.S. or Europe, you can bet we’d all be talking about it for a very long time and this particular incident wouldn’t be dismissed so casually. “It didn’t go down??? doesn’t begin to reflect the reality of that episode.

–Andre Weltman,
Gardners, Pennsylvania

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