Anti-Missile Defenses for Commercial Aircraft

In yet another “movie-plot threat” defense, the U.S. government is starting to test anti-missile lasers on commercial aircraft.

It could take years before passenger planes carry protection against missiles, a weapon terrorists might use to shoot down jets and cause economic havoc in the airline industry. The tests will help the nation’s leaders decide if they should install laser systems on all 6,800 aircraft in the U.S. airline fleet at a cost of at least $6 billion.

“Yes, it will cost money, but it’s the same cost as an aircraft entertainment system,” Kubricky says.

I think the airline industry is missing something here. If they linked the anti-missile lasers with the in-seat entertainment systems, cross-country flights would be much more exciting.

Posted on July 21, 2005 at 8:58 AM68 Comments


Shiny July 21, 2005 9:15 AM

If we’re talking movie-plot threats and remedies, why not go the Austin Powers / Dr. Evil route and have aquatic anti-missile defenses established?

Dr. Evil: “You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads!”

It’ll probably cost less in R&D than the aircraft lasers…

Happy July 21, 2005 9:22 AM

Yeah! Link the anti-missile system with then entertainment. Then I can shoot at other planes!

Which will, inevitably, cause the airline industry to develop anti-anti-missile defense systems.

Timm Murray July 21, 2005 9:23 AM

. . . and the airplane goes down anyway by the first suicide bomber who flys a Cessna out of a small, reginal airport (i.e., strip of asphalt, some hangers, and an FBO) and rams it into the jet’s engine.

I don’t see how you can secure these small airports. There’s too many of them, they don’t have a lot of money, many don’t even have a chain-link fence, but they may bring a lot of revenue to the local town (some private pilots live right next to the airport and keep their planes hangered on their own property, thereby increasing property values). So you can’t just shut them down, and you can’t secure them.

Given this, I don’t see how you can secure airports.

cynical conspiracy theorist July 21, 2005 9:36 AM

Gee, maybe if they’d had that technology about 10 years ago, they could have saved Flight 800 🙂

JohnJ July 21, 2005 10:13 AM

From the article: “A swiveling turret would then fire a laser beam that could confound the sensitive heat-seeking components of the missile.”

I like that “could”. Makes me feel real safe. I also like it that it’s only trying to “confound” the missile; not destroy it.

No mention is made of what psuedo-defense they’d implement if the should-fired-missle isn’t a heat seeker (radar-based, for instance, or some other kind of mass detector). Or about missiles more potent than shoulder-fired.

Rampo July 21, 2005 10:31 AM

This will also be great news for terrorists who want to hijack planes and crash them into public buildings: better defences against air force interceptors.

jammit July 21, 2005 10:36 AM

It’s official. I give up. Instead of trying to get a grip on things, I’m just going to sit back and watch the monkeys fling feces at each other.

bert July 21, 2005 10:41 AM

“Movie plot” security is definitely the word for it; the situation is contrived. Sure, I guess it is possible, but if that’s their (il)logic, then why aren’t they talking about fixing these turrets on everything that could be a potential target?

Buses? Buildings? Toasters?

Its awfully silly to think we have to plastic wrap everything in our American lives with laser defense systems, and only slightly less silly to think we have to put them on commercial transports.

I say leave it to the airlines. If they think they can pull more profits by blowing millions of dollars from their already bankrupted funds on the oh-so-consumer-friendly feature of laser defenses, more power to them, but give me back my tax dollars — I didn’t give my consent for this!

David July 21, 2005 10:45 AM

Didn’t you know that safety comes from an ever increasing arms race? With the Soviets, we rushed in with nukes that have proven entirely safe and there’s no concern those weapons will be used by terrorists or rogue nations. Oh yeah…

bert July 21, 2005 10:48 AM

@ rampo

That’s a really sharp insight there. That seems to be the trend with these “movie plot” security fixes — being that the potential damages of having them turned against us by the ones that they’re intended to protect us from outweigh the benefits.

Don July 21, 2005 11:11 AM

I’m particularly annoyed by movie-plot scenarios involving small planes that are obviously spun by people who know nothing about them.

Take a flying lesson or two, and you won’t give any credence to hitting a jetliner in the air with a rented Cessna.

Think — minumum approach speed for a typical jetliner is around 130 knots. Real pilots making up lost time enroute often come in at 300 until the last couple of miles. Max speed for a Cessna 172 is around 100 knots.

How are you ever going to catch him? Don’t you think he might dodge? Don’t forget that the controllers are watching by sight and radar as well.

Gustavo July 21, 2005 11:19 AM

“…will rig out-of-service planes with laser defense systems designed to misdirect shoulder-fired missiles, said John Kubricky…”

Hmmm…. movie-plot threat… John Kubricky…

Isn’t he related to Stanley Kubrick?

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 11:28 AM

The article mentions the fact that “about 35 airliners and other non-military planes have been attacked elsewhere by shoulder-fired missiles since the late 1970s…the attacks shot down 24 aircraft and killed 500 people.”

That definitely seems like a significant number. Although, if you look at the total picture (for example here and here you might wonder if that money could be spent elsewhere to reduce the total number of fatalities due to aviation accidents.

The big question, I guess, is whether shoulder-fired terrorist attacks are likely to increase. But even in that scenario, the most cost-effective solution seems to be a reduction in the number of shoulder-fired rockets sold to terrorists. Take for example the sale of Scud missles by South Africa to Iraq (via small African countries that were willing to launder the sale for a small profit). Was the US Patriot missle program more/less than the financial/political cost of stopping the sale of the Scud rockets from an ally state to an enemy state in the first place? And how successful was the Patriot program, anyway?

“at most one Scud out of 50 was destroyed by a Patriot”

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 11:36 AM

I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion about the Patriot system in particular, but in general terms it provides a fascinating look at the risks in a complex defense system, and how a delay in applying a software update to fix a computing error caused a serious system failure that led to fatalities:

“The Israelis had identified the problem and informed the US Army and the Patriot Project Office (the software manufacturer) on February 11, 1991. The Israelis recommended rebooting the Patriot system’s computers as a workaround; however, Army officials did not understand how often they needed to reboot the system. The manufacturer supplied updated software to the Army on February 16. The updated software arrived the day after the Scud struck the Army barracks.”

Nicholas Weaver July 21, 2005 11:37 AM

Of course, what really ticks ME off is I believe that the ground personnel STILL aren’t going through security screening.

After all, there was at least one case of a ground personal using his security clearance to get a gun on a plane where he shot his supervisor, the flight crew, and crashed the plane!

paul July 21, 2005 11:46 AM

SCUDS: not shoulder-fired.

But in general, this kind of movie-plot security seems both stupid and a diversion of resources from more useful countermeasures (don’t some aircraft already carry IR-decoy dispensers?). As the French found out with the Maginot Line, it’s a bad idea to invest huge amounts in a defense that the enemy can defeat with a really small tweak to their attack plan (in this case, perhaps an optical notch filter once the wavelength of the defensive lasers is known, i.e. a week after first deployment) and that cannot cheaply be tweaked to meet the countermeasure.

But wow! lasers! Multi-billion-dollar contracts! Piles of R&D money!

Probitas July 21, 2005 11:50 AM

“The article mentions the fact that “about 35 airliners and other non-military planes have been attacked elsewhere by shoulder-fired missiles since the late 1970s…the attacks shot down 24 aircraft and killed 500 people.”

And about how long does it take for 500 people to be killed in automobile accidents? I am guessing somewhat less than 25+ years. One of the great things about “defending against terrorists” is that it permits sexy, movie plot initiatives. The fact that we Americans buy this stuff is evidenced by who we elect as Governors. From Jesse Ventura to Arnold Swchartzenegger, we clearly prefer movie plots to real life.

Kevin July 21, 2005 11:50 AM

I’m normally happy to sit the sidelines and listen to the insights of others. But this time, I felt compelled to chime in.

Aircraft Defense Systems (ADS) have been employed on military aircraft for some time. Some are as simple as flares – some are as odd as towed-decoys. And, are they effective? Ask a few US Air Force pilots who had the opportunity to use them to save their tails in combat.

What’s my point? Well, ADS works. In terms of the threat – ok, we haven’t had any confirmed downing of commercial aircraft.

If you had the opportunity to save ONE life with information or technology you possess would you use it?

ADS, in its many forms, has proven to be an effective countermeasure in combat. Failure to employ ADS on civilian aircraft would be, in my opinion, irresponsible.

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 12:03 PM

“If you had the opportunity to save ONE life with information or technology you possess would you use it?”

It depends. It always depends.

Right now, in the U.S. we let 40,000 people die in car crashes. We can save at least some of those lives with technology. We choose not to.

We could save some lives if the government issues bullet-proof vests to everyone, and then requires that they be worn at all times. We don’t, because it’s ridiculous.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be a discussion, only that there should be a discussion. Security is always a trade-off, and we need to discuss the merits of those trade-offs. The “if we can save one life, it is worth it…” line is complete nonsense. And when push comes to shove, it’s not how anyone thinks.

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 12:06 PM

“ADS, in its many forms, has proven to be an effective countermeasure in combat. Failure to employ ADS on civilian aircraft would be, in my opinion, irresponsible.”

I don’t think it’s possible to make that statement until we know what it costs. If it costs $10 per aircraft, it would be irresponsible not to install the system. If it costs $10 million per aircraft, it would be irresponsible not to take that money and spend it on something else. If it’s in the middle, then we should start weighing the trade-offs.

Remember, if we spend billions protecting airplanes from missiles and the terrorists use those missiles against another target instead, we’ve wasted our billions. I’d rather take that money and spend it on intelligence and investigation, so we have a better chance of catching the terrorists regardless of what their missiles happen to be pointing at.

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 12:06 PM


Yes, my point is that missle details and attack vectors are actually largely irrelevant when you look at the bigger security picture.

Consider that France in particular, and Israel to some degree, helped South Africa to develop a weapons program that eventually made its way to Iraq (Financial Times, May 24 1991, p.1,6).

Now consider that “it could take years before passenger planes carry protection against missiles”. In that time, the US could pursue an agressive detection and reduction of shoulder-fired missle capabilities by targeting the source(s) of distribution.

Overall risk to airlines and their passengers can be calculated as Risk = Asset x Vulnerabilities x Threats.

My best guess is that the reduction of the threat would be achieved at a more cost-effective and timely rate than this “shot in the dark” approach to reducing vulnerabilities.

There is a point at which it becomes too costly to reduce vulnerabilties if the very systems introduced bring significant new vulnerabilities (e.g. software bugs). The risk is futher magnified if so much money is spent on fixing (or fixating on) a single vulnerability that the myriad of remaining (and potential) threats are not properly addressed.

DM July 21, 2005 12:10 PM

Lets do the math. Lets say that that 6 billion dollars saves something like 500 lives. Thats about $12mil per life saved. Nice.

Lets just assume that my life would have been saved – if I promise not to fly for the rest of my life, can I have the $12 mil now?

Don July 21, 2005 12:19 PM

As someone else commented, the probability of causing problems to a commercial aircraft with a cessna-type craft is 0, probably even if the commercial aircraft is stationary on the ground. A little work will find you images of the post 9-11 incident in Tampa FL when some nutbag smacked his small craft into an office building. He managed to destroy the plane and break a few windows, barely. I think you’ll find most 747s have tougher skin than a glass 5 floor office building.

Against objects in motion, forget it. The Don who is not me mentions speed differences but that’s only a tiny part of it. “Experimental aircraft” (the FAA designation for small hobbist planes) fly mostly on visual flight rules and with little control because the chances of hitting another craft are tiny (the “big sky” theory) and with full lateral AND vertical movement avoiding an impact is pretty easy. The chances of hitting another plane who’s attempting to stay clear of you are nil. Add in the mentioned speed factor and it would be hard for a small plane to even get near any commercial aircraft.

MrAtoz July 21, 2005 12:21 PM

I get a bad feeling when I see people attempt to improve security by adding weaponry as a default configuration to a previously unarmed environment. We are spending enormous amounts of time and effort keeping passengers from bringing weapons on aircraft, but then turn around and introduce them ourselves (guns in the cockpit, air marshals, and now laser systems). There has to be an exploit to make malignant use of those weapons so conveniently provided onboard by security agencies.

I get the same bad feeling when I walk through Penn Station and see so many automatic rifles suddenly walking around. Recall the murder/hostage-taking situation a few months back in the Atlanta courthouse; same principle.

DarkFire July 21, 2005 12:22 PM

Although I agree in principle with the idea of installing anti-missile defence systems on commercial aircraft, why do we need an expensive, untested laser system?

History shows that a basic flare ejector coupled with IR launch detectors is extremely effective at decoying all but the most sophisticated MANPADs.

And in a commercial aircraft there would be plenty of room for a nice large (say 1000 cartridge) flare ejector, and this also removes the need for expensive systems that are miniaturised for use in the cramped confines of a fighter or bomber.

Again this is some committee designing a Rolls Royce when a coal truck would do the job admirably…

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 12:49 PM

Ok, I have to take back some of what I said above. I should have checked first as the United States and Russia appear to have signed an agreement (Feb, 2005) to cooperate in destroying surplus portable anti-aircraft missiles.

They also appear to now provide financial assistance to other countries to destroy their anti-aircraft missles (Nicaragua, Bosnia, Cambodia and Liberia). That’s good news. Better late than never.

Three things still stand out, however:

First of all, the US has been a major source of approximately 1 million shoulder-fired missles sold since the 1950s in its campaign to subsidize rebels and destabilization of sovereign states during the Cold War. For example, 2,000 are known to have been sold by the CIA directly to rebels in Afghanistan (e.g. Osama bin Laden) in the mid 1980s to fight the Soviets.

The CIA tried to buy the missles back from Afghanistan in 1989 when the Soviets withdrew, but 600 or so were still unaccounted for through the 1990s. So it remains to be seen what can be done to reduce the threat from “freedom-fighters” (US term for the mujahadeen) who are still actively trying to amass missles and shoot-down US aircraft.

And that brings us to the second issue. Wade Boese, research director at the private Arms Control Association, notes there is still an “absence of a commitment by either Washington or Moscow to halt the exports”. How do we stop those from getting into the “wrong” hands down the line?

Finally, the third issue is that the US Government Accountability Office found that the US Government data on arms transfers are inaccurate on missile exports: “One says 7,551 Stingers have been sold abroad since 1982 and the other puts the figure at 8,331. One says Egypt bought 89; the other says Egypt bought none.”

So I still see opporuntity for improvement in reducing the threat of shoulder-fired missles, which could cost a fraction of the anti-missle lasers that will have a questionable impact on aircraft vulnerabilities.

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 12:54 PM

“Lets do the math. Lets say that that 6 billion dollars saves something like 500 lives. Thats about $12mil per life saved. Nice.”

I don’t know the actual number, but there is a rule-of-thumb number for the value of a life saved. Then we get calculations like: “Not using pesticide X costs the industry $Y and saves Z lives. Is it worth it?”

Kevin July 21, 2005 12:55 PM

@ Bruce

I do not disagree with you in principle – the employment of ADS does not cure the affliction, it treats a symptom.

And I agree with you the affliction must be cured. Appropriate spending must be funded to intellegence and investigation.

But, its important to understand that ADS is an effective concept with proven technologies. It effectively treats the symptom until the cure is found.

Do any modern IT security components (routers, firewalls, IDS) cure the cause of IT security problems? Does keeping your computer patched routinely cure the cause of IT security problems? Does using a non-Microsoft browser treat the cause of security problems? No, no and no. They are – as I believe you would agree – only part of effective risk management effort (and yes, these are low cost mitigations).

Yes, absolutely, we need to focus on intellegence and investigation – YES! However, I suggest you should reconsider calling ADS a movie-plot threat defense and dismissing it as worthless.

One last thing – I appreciate the conversation – thanks for bringing up the topic! Good on ya! 😉

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 12:56 PM

And remember, a countermeasure only saves lives if the terrorists go home and play pinochle instead of modifying their tactics and attacking something else. Countermeasures that move the target around are much less useful than counermeasures that reduce the risk of terrorism overall.

Unless you’re in charge of an airline, that is. If you’re running an airline, having the target shift from airplanes to shopping malls is a good thing — and worth spending money for. But if you’re the government, it’s a waste of resources.

Fred F. July 21, 2005 12:57 PM

To DarkFire, but then the passengers and everyone else would know the flares have been used and think they are under attack. The problem is that this system has to work even when there is not threat so that in the event of a threat it is guaranteed to work. That is you will get false positives because you don’t want to miss any true positive. With the laser system, not even the pilots need to know it was activated and we will all feel safer.

Probitas July 21, 2005 12:59 PM


In addition to the lack of lobbyists selling coal trucks, Americans won’t relect a politician who buys a coal truck. The fact is, we like the shiny chrome on a Rolls, and so we must have it. We’re #1! Whoooooooo! Yea!

Kevin July 21, 2005 1:13 PM

Ok, so then what we should do is focus only on the distant target (erradication of terrorism) and not worry about the target right in front of us?

Hmm, I’m sorry Ms. Jones (and other surviving family members)… we had the knowledge and technology to prevent this aircraft from being blown out of the sky, but we were off fighting world hunger in the hopes of winning the terrorist’s affection?

You have to look at the long AND the short range targets.

Arik July 21, 2005 1:26 PM

Oh man so many comments.

It’s all very simple really:

  • The attack tree on passenger aircrafts include the misslie scenario.
  • The cost of a successful attack (to the defenders) is M, and the probability of that attack is P.
  • There exists a device that can reduce the probability of a successful attack to P’, and it costs C to implement.

So: The expectency of payment without the device is:

E(without) = MP

And with the device:

E(with) = MP’

The extectency saving introduced by the device is:

S=E(without) – E(with)

If S>C then it is worthwhile to install the device.

Now this calculation can be offset by some factors like if the aircraft has the system passengers are more likely to choose the airliner, but I doubt they really affect the bottom line.

The only things left to discuss or discover or measure are the probability of the attack, the probability of the attack with the device on board, and the cost of the attack to the airliner.

Kevin July 21, 2005 1:49 PM

Good conversation, Bruce. This is exactly why I’m glad your book “Beyond Fear” arrived on my desk yesterday… courtesy of BN, FEDEX and my dime. I’ll let you know if my perspective changes AFTER I’ve finished the book. In the meanwhile – I’ve got to get back to writing worthless security documentation! (and the “worthless” point was not intended to be facetious – I mean it!)

rjh July 21, 2005 1:51 PM

Several things:

1) The laser turrets are not weapons for destruction. They are used to provide a “light show” that dazzles and confuses the missile guidance system. That is sufficient. Once the guidance is confused the missile will miss. They need to be on the target aircraft to be effective because new MANPADs are already designed to ignore signals from outside their target area.

2) This is dual use technology. In a combat area flares, etc. are routine. They are also very expensive. They are too expensive for routine commercial use. If this technology works, it will be used by the military in combat areas to reduce cost and to permit routine use in lower risk areas. Commercial aviation use would be a beneficial sideeffect if the costs can be made low enough.

3) Calling this “movie script” is unfair. This mode of attack is well known and routinely practiced in combat areas. Attacks like this have been attempted against commercial airliners. The likelihood assessment can be called into question, but it is not as foolish as many of the current security theatricals.

4) FYI, the old US and current US and Russian MANPADs are designed with a few short life expendible parts that are intentionally designed with bizarre (often secret) voltages, connectors, etc. so that commercial equivalents are hard to adapt. This increases operational expenses, but also means that unsupported (e.g., stolen) MANPADs need these parts and the parts must be newly made. Attempts to obtain these specialized parts or make equivalents are likely to trigger security alerts.

This reduces the risk from lone wolf actors and combat operations losses but any government supported terrorist will probably get these short life parts.

2dman July 21, 2005 1:57 PM


Knowing someone who worked on military Laser systems (both weapon systems and others) for several decades, I am not an expert on the technology, but somewhat familiar with the politics. I think that a line must be drawn between what you are calling “ADS” and these laser confusion devices. There are a number of defense systems that are known to be quite effective (as you point out) that do not cost $6B.

However, to develop a relatively experimental method that only stops one type of guidance system at the stunning cost of $6B is clearly influenced by the romanticism of a “laser” system. This is the movie-plot part — not the ADS part — the lasers. Ray-guns.

Personally, I would much prefer to see us develop the laser confusers for F-22s and B-2s, which are much more likely to encounter a heat-seeker, will be outfitted in much smaller numbers, etc. Instead of laser flumoxers, perhaps we should outfit commercial airliners with chaff and flares, which have demonstrated success against IR & rader guided missiles, will cost far less money, and can be installed tomorrow morning.


DarkFire July 21, 2005 2:32 PM

Fred F:

“To DarkFire, but then the passengers and everyone else would know the flares have been used and think they are under attack. The problem is that this system has to work even when there is not threat so that in the event of a threat it is guaranteed to work. That is you will get false positives because you don’t want to miss any true positive. With the laser system, not even the pilots need to know it was activated and we will all feel safer.”

You make some good arguments, but I would make the following points:

1) When considering aircraft security, passenger awareness of an attack ought to be irrelevant. To be sure, avoiding panick on board is important.

2) What you say regarding the fact that it HAS to work – yes this is absolutelky true… Whioch is why I believe that we should not be using a brand new and somewhat untested technology, especially when we have existing, very well proven flare technology that is a) much simpler and therefore more reliable and b) much cheaper to maintain.

As someone else posted, let’s save the top-grade experimental laser gear for the F-22s and B2s. Keep the old & reliable stuff for the civillian fleet. As far as I’m aware, a MANPAD has only been used once against a civillian airliner, and that attack failed miserably without the aircraft having any countermeasures whatsoever. Let’s keep the threat in perspective…

Marc Ramsey July 21, 2005 2:42 PM

It is amusing to consider that at the same time that consideration is being given to spending massive amounts of money on deploying countermeasures against IR guided missiles, the FAA is also in the midst of deploying the ADS-B system nationwide. This system places GPS-equipped transponders in aircraft, which continuously broadcast (in an easily decoded format) highly accurate 3D position information, along with an identifier unique to each aircraft…

Devil’s Advocate July 21, 2005 2:46 PM

I think we may all be looking at this in the wrong way. This is not an example of security; it’s an example of research and development. The systems are being tested. That’s different from being deployed. The sad fact is that investing in R&D is never provably your most cost-effective option, even if it is vital. Someone’s definitely trying to sell some expensive movie security here, but I think it’s actually the DHS folks trying to wow the public. The real question we should be asking ourselves is if the $45 million Northrop and BAE Systems are getting to investigate missile-defense systems is a good investment of R&D dollars. Remember that while the research is focusing on the sexy problem of stopping a shoulder-fired missile from striking a dream liner full of business men, the real results of the study might one day find their way into mundane military transports,F-22s, or prehaps one day even jeeps. Having a small system that could be mounted on a convoy that was even 10% effective against shoulder-fired missiles would seem to be invaluable in Iraq right now. Taking off the rose-colored glasses for a second though, perhaps $45 million spent on integrating laser cannons with the in-flight entertainment WOULD have been a better use for the money.

I think the important thing is to distinguish between research and security. Stupid security projects should be shot down. Slightly stupid research projects sometimes lead to big breakthroughs though. We should be careful not to squelch all research just because it does not look like it will produce a “best??? solution.

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 3:15 PM

“I think we may all be looking at this in the wrong way. This is not an example of security; it’s an example of research and development. The systems are being tested. That’s different from being deployed.”

This is a good point. Research and development is almost always a good thing.

Bruce Schneier July 21, 2005 3:18 PM

“Hmm, I’m sorry Ms. Jones (and other surviving family members)… we had the knowledge and technology to prevent this aircraft from being blown out of the sky, but we were off fighting world hunger in the hopes of winning the terrorist’s affection?”

This is a very important point, and one that everyone needs to remember. It’s rarely about security, it’s about PR and job security and CYA. Government officials need to do the wrong thing, because doing the right thing doesn’t play well in the press — and playing well in the press is how you get re-elected.

In Beyond Fear I call this kind of thing “agenda,” and it explains a lot of seemingly inexplicable security decisions.

RSaunders July 21, 2005 5:16 PM

There is a fundamental difference between military aircraft and civilian aircraft that renders much of the anti-missile analogy dubious. Military aircraft are assigned to fly over arbitrary places because enemies are likely to be found there – civilian aircraft fly only to specific known places, called airports, and nowhere else.

If you have to be able to fly over enemies AND they get to pick their location THEN you need to bring defense gizmos with you. These gizmos ought to be effective, even if they require a lot of cost and maintenance, because the risk of enemies is high. Frankly planners are working around the clock to send you to a place where enemies are. This is called the away game.

If you are only going to fly to an airport, and I only mean big airports where they have commercial jet service, you have a totally fixed volume where you are close enough to the ground to be a Manpad target. This volume is known, largely subject to lots of “near an airport” restrictions on its use, and not something the enemy can change. This is called the home game.

Taking an away game solution to a home game is not “dual use”, it is bad system engineering. The number of flights is high, the cost-per-pound-carried is a driver, available energy is limited, all of which make on-board an expensive place to do business. When they say “costs the same as the entertainment system” they mean many millions, not the $299 for a Playstation.

Home game solutions capitalize on things that are cost effective in that space. Electrical power is unlimited – for the cost of an entertainment system you can buy a huge amount of energy. You can go with a truck and mount system components anyplace you want in the volume of interest, thanks to eminent domain. You can hire people to be part of the system, it’s a big cost but nothing like adding back a flight engineer to run the self defense gizmo. System components do not need to be miniaturized, compare a fighter radar to an airport radar and you will see many benefits of home game.

Even if dazzlers work, which is what they are testing, it’s hard to see that they are the right engineering solution to the problem. With a lot more airplanes than airports it just seems backwards.

Filias Cupio July 21, 2005 5:20 PM

Inspired by Paul’s post:

Perhaps “Maginot Line Security” would be a better term to use than “Movie Plot Threat”? It instantly gets across the point that it is a very expensive defense that the bad guys can just go around. Or am I assuming too much, believing the masses will understand the reference?

Chung Leong July 21, 2005 5:26 PM

@Davi Ottenheimer,

‘The article mentions the fact that “about 35 airliners and other non-military planes have been attacked elsewhere by shoulder-fired missiles since the late 1970s…the attacks shot down 24 aircraft and killed 500 people.”‘

The numbers seem to indicate the plane that were shot down were relatively small. Modern airliners are fairly tough. I can’t recall a plane of the size of a 747 having been shot down by shoulder-fired missle.

An automated laser turret on commercial jets sounds dangerous. There’s always the possibility of the system mistaking a nearby plane as a missle and blinding its pilots.

rjh July 21, 2005 5:29 PM

The $6 billion included installation on commercial aircraft. The article said 6800 but the various AvWeek summaries more accurately include freighters, etc. for a 10,000+ count. If you include $1 billion R&D, that places the cost estimate at $500K per aircraft, including the NPV of additional fuel costs for additional weight and drag. This strikes me as an under-estimate considering the cost of other aviation rated electronics for commercial passenger aviation. But it is not radically out of line for a “dazzler” type countermeasure. Full field destructive lasers with aviation rating will cost much more.

As for past history, there have been multiple reported MANPAD attacks on commercial aircraft. Only one actually hit its target, and while it did substantial damage the aircraft was able to land.

Analysts were impressed by the skill of the aircrew in landing given the damage inflicted. One outcome of this was feedback on potential easy (and difficult) design changes to reduce the damage resulting from a hit. MANPADs have warheads intended for helicopters and military jets. Commercial airliners are much larger, more redundant, and more damage resistant.

But from an agenda point of view, changes to reduce damage and increase survivability lack publicity appeal. “Fighting back” has appeal, hence the rather aggressive description of the dazzler countermeasures.

A different design for MANPADs could tailor them for commercial airliners, but the few countries with the skill to design and make MANPADs do not want this to happen. So terrorists, guerillas, etc. will be limited to MANPADS with warheads designed for helicopters and attack jets.

rjh July 21, 2005 6:07 PM

Correction, I should have qualified my “one” as “one modern airliner operated by a Western firm.” I wasn’t thinking.

The earliest reported manpad hit is a Rhodesian airliner, 1978, by a SAM-7, 59 fatalities. In terms of indirect fatalities you have the shootdown of Ruandan president Habyarimana’s aircraft by a manpad at the opening of the Ruandan civil war and genocide. There are also the “grey” categories. How do you categorize ex-Russian militarytransport aircraft shot down in Angola, or civilian charter C-130’s carrying UN troops? You can get above 40 airliners shot down if you want.

This is a different aspect of agenda. Most of these happened in Africa, South America, etc. to people flying local airlines in areas with local wars. This does not make the front pages of Western news because it does not affect them and because you expect problems in countries with an active local civil war.

Jacob Appelbaum July 21, 2005 6:22 PM

The answer to how we will secure larger airplanes against smaller VFR/IFR being used as an attack vector is simple.

We’ll simply limit the ability for people to fly VFR/IFR.

It will take one or two events of something terrible and we will have a knee jerk reaction. If it’s really bad, we’ll simply make it illegal until we have so much red tape, it’s basically impossible for the normal person to fly. This is similar to what happened to the “porn” industry this year.

I use quotes because it’s not just the porn industry, take a look at Gapingmaw.

The website says it best:

18 USC 2257

Yes, that is correct. The wonderful things that used to be here, the very funny things that you want to read, have been made retroactively illegal by the US government, in a side-handed attack on the pornography industry.

We might mention that the material here isn’t even pornography as you normally think of it — this site is just adult humor, in essay format, with some illustrations. The government is mandating that we meet certain bookkeeping requirements, ones impossible to meet for this site. Never mind that those requirements do not actually gain the public anything. This is the strongest attack on free speech since the passage of the CDA, and oddly, the media seems to have hardly noticed. The penalty for not abiding by these bookkeeping requirements is five years prison.

The regulations were promulgated by Alberto Gonzales, US Attorney General appointed by George Bush. If you voted for Bush, this is your fault. If you think this country is free, you are sadly mistaken. No nation has freedom when it is run by religious zealots.

Regulations effective 24 June 2005.”

I once saw something posted on this blog by a random commenter that asked “what are we protecting ourselves from?”

We’re being protected from ourselves.

The ultimate authority and nanny state isn’t just on it’s way, it’s here.

We have pilliow fascism.

Our country is under attack from domestic threats and it’s hidden by the fear of terrorism.

Everytime a solider dies in Iraq, that’s a product of our domestic issue. Everytime you eat fish and it’s full of heavy metals it’s because our leaders refuse to protect the environment. Everytime you hear about lawmakers extending the patriot act or laws like it, it’s because our leaders are out of control.

Resist the urge to follow along, be critical and try to change this before it’s too late.

We need to replace our leaders, vote them out next term. All of them.

Ari Heikkinen July 21, 2005 6:31 PM

Does this mean we’ll have to start using eye protection near airports now? Who comes up with all these ideas anyway? I’m pretty sure the proposed idea isn’t even technically feasible. Good luck trying to stop a short range missile approaching some 800 meters a sec from whatever direction by trying to automatically point a laser beam to its nose hoping it’ll destroy the optics (and if those terrorists really have so many of those missiles what’s stopping them firing two or three?).

Jarrod July 21, 2005 7:32 PM

“I’m particularly annoyed by movie-plot scenarios involving small planes that are obviously spun by people who know nothing about them.

Take a flying lesson or two, and you won’t give any credence to hitting a jetliner in the air with a rented Cessna.

Think — minumum approach speed for a typical jetliner is around 130 knots. Real pilots making up lost time enroute often come in at 300 until the last couple of miles. Max speed for a Cessna 172 is around 100 knots.” — Don

You might want to check your history. On 31 Aug 1986, a Piper Archer — a small, single-engine prop plane — was responsible for the crash of an Aeromexico DC-9 on approach to LAX when it collided with the left horizontal stabilizer. The crash in a residential section of Cerritos killed all 64 people on the Aeromexico flight, three on the small plane, and 15 people on the ground. This was entirely accidental — the small plane pilot may have suffered a heart attack — but shows that a small plane can, indeed, have a dramatic effect on a much larger aircraft.

Anonymous Coward July 21, 2005 7:37 PM


how about someone who simply flies a plane, drives a truck/jeep, a herd of cows in front of a plane as it takes off/lands…….

Seriously though, what is the point of this ? People forget how EASY it is to kill others.

Look back to last year when some guy tried to commit suicide at a train crossing in the uk. Ended up crashing the train and killing 20 people. Now do a coordinated attack at several crossings across the country. Bombs used – 0.

So now i’ve thought of that one, do we go off and ban all cars from crossing tracks without being inspected first ?

$6 billion dollars would go a LONG WAY to helping solve the palestine issue and getting a new palestine state up and running. Solve THAT PROBLEM, and iI think the impact on world terrorism would be far greater.

dpawtows July 21, 2005 8:41 PM

Potential problem with flare-based systems: Flares are incendiary devices. I’d expect any such system to have a high false-positive rate, so airliners will start pumping out small incendiary bombs anytime the sensor thinks it sees a missile. Would you really want to do that over an airport? Also, modern MANPADS are gettign quite good at ignoring flares anyway, that’s why the military originally started looking at laser-based systems in the first place.

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 11:02 PM

“The wonderful things that used to be here, the very funny things that you want to read, have been made retroactively illegal by the US government, in a side-handed attack on the pornography industry.”

This is consistent with the trends against free-speech that have been happening across the US Bible-belt for many years. “Adult” reading material was strictly defined as anything that had nudity or sexual references and therefore censored or completely banned. However Soldier of Fortune and other pro-militia reading was considered harmless. There was some discussion about how the latter had documented correlations to domestic violence (including gun-for-hire murder cases), but the effort was mainly led by secular moderates who in the end clearly preferred freedom of speech to censorship. Or who could not muster enough support against the pro-gun lobby. Thus, nudity was highly regulated, while guns and violence were largely unaffected with regard to the media.

Someone recently mentioned, on this blog in fact, that the reverse trend has been true in Europe, perhaps as a result of a lesser influence from fundamentalists over politics. I hear that society there has been trying to seriously evaluate and reduce the potential causes of (gun) violence, while not restricting nudity and other forms of expression considered innocuous by moderates.

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 11:29 PM


“Government officials need to do the wrong thing, because doing the right thing doesn’t play well in the press — and playing well in the press is how you get re-elected.”

Well, that’s an interesting statement. I think you are actually trying to say Government officials have many competing audiences/agendas, and they often chose to please people who really do not care about the public’s best interest(s).

Of course, this begs the question of who/what really defines the public’s best interest. It used to be managed by laws and courts, etc. but I was a bit surprised to hear today that some Republican officials are publically disregarding large majority opinions and even legal judgements in order to appease their particular interest groups and/or vision of the world. For example, it takes real arrogance for a Governor to expect citizens to obey the laws when he is repeatedly accused of breaking it himself:

“A Superior Court judge on Thursday kicked Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s redistricting measure off the special election ballot, ruling that supporters violated California’s constitution by using two versions of the initiative in the qualifying process.”

“California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the directors of two state health agencies will face a contempt-of-court hearing Aug. 17 for issuing a third order to relax state requirements for nurse-to-patient ratios in California hospitals.”

I would not exactly call these stories good press management. Perhaps it is because the press, public, or even judges are not the people who the Governor is aiming to please? Or would you just say the Governor is just bad at playing a governent official?

Davi Ottenheimer July 21, 2005 11:42 PM


“Ok, so then what we should do is focus only on the distant target (erradication of terrorism) and not worry about the target right in front of us?”

What is the target right in front of us? Is it reducing vulnerabilities or threats, or both? Which one can be done most effectively?

Bruce responded favorably to your post, but I see a good deal of “quick, pull the trigger to fund weapons programs because that might make us safer” reasoning.

Ah, wait a minute. Remember the StarWars laser defence system meant to shoot Soviet missles down? I wonder which defence contractor lobbyist has that in their back pocket when they saddle-up and ride into Washington to talk about protecting civilians from “imminent danger”?

The only good thing I have heard people say about the StarWars laser defence program is that it may have helped drive the USSR further into financial crisis, which ultimately forced their (someone rational) leadership to dismantle the USSR. It certainly never had much chance of directly reducing vulnerabilities. Conversely, I doubt terrorists will be seriously impacted by rapid US armament and bloated futuristic Defense R&D projects.

jammit July 22, 2005 12:28 AM

Time to accept that I descended from chimpanzees and start throwing my own feces around. There doesn’t seem to be any way of stopping the laser idea. Is it really necessary to have a laser on /every/ plane? Could a few dummy lasers be used? Maybe even have them easily removeable and swap them around from plane to plane just to confuse. It won’t save money, but it won’t cost so much.

BachusII July 23, 2005 7:38 AM

So,lets slap several radar and IR receivers on strategic places on the plane.
Put a computer on the plane to asses the data from the receivers.
If it finds something that might be a missile, it should transmit the current location, altitude and heading of the plane alongside as much data about the anomalie as possible (in other words general location of the launch) to computers on the ground.
A squadron of apache helicopters or B2 bombers can then be deployed to make that general area decidedly hazardous to anyone/anything that resembles a human with the leftovers of a manpad on his/her shoulders.

Could be done for less than 10k per plane.
Chaff/flares or laser dazzler systems optional.

rsf October 17, 2005 5:58 PM

Just to toss this out there… Suppose we spend $6bil on an as-yet-unproven laser-based missile strike mitigation system (assuming the cost doesn’t double/triple/worse), and someone still manages to launch one at a plane anywhere close to the US. Even IF the system works, the very fact that someone has the sack to shoot down aircraft even with our lasers will deter the public from flying for some time causing yet more financial damage to a struggling industry.

Or, what happens when a laser doesn’t trick the missile either by intention or accident and an airliner still gets taken out? Can the lasers really protect a 360-degree sphere around the plane, or will there be “holes” a carefully designed missile can breach? What are the chances of tracking and hitting an object moving at several hundred miles per hour, from a platform also moving at high speed, both of which may be making directional changes at will?

I think $6B could be better spent on the root cause of the problem – people with missiles. $6B ought to be able to fund a good deal of intelligence and erradication, thereby reducing the threat of this, no?

Or like the Star Wars program, maybe the intent of the game isn’t to really “stop” 100% of the threat per se, but to make it so expensive to keep up that they simply cannot afford to make a go at it. Attrition by bankruptcy, so to speak.

Of course that doesn’t prevent someone from renting a small aircraft to target a big one. Without an active transponder, I am not sure they’d even see you coming; and you don’t have to chase the airliner down — just get in front of it! If you’re that concerned about speed, make like the guy on the news recently and steal a business jet. But here we’re getting to the root of the problem, which is people having a desire to take down airliners (or anything else with people in/on/around it). “Build a better mousetrap” as they say… If you make their missiles ineffective, they will find another way to do it. You will NEVER find a way to stop all means of accomplishing their goal short of taking them out first (which is a whole other ethical debate).

And I am still laughing at the “sharks with fricken laser beams” comment. 🙂 Of course this whole thing got me remembering the movie “Real Genius” involving an aircraft-mounted laser targeting system, but that was involving a ground-based target moving at highway speeds. I’d think actually tracking a small object moving at high speed in 3-dimensional space would prove somewhat more difficult, especially given that if their missle can alter course faster than you can lock onto it, your lasers won’t do squat.

BH January 24, 2006 6:33 PM

If you think that a laser will save lives on commercial aircraft were will it be located? Will it stop more powerful missiles from fighters? Will it always stop the missile, other countermeasers fail. Besides how vunerable can an airliner at 30,000 feet be. I think the money should be spent elsewere

firsttimer January 16, 2007 11:30 PM

terrorists learning how to use these jets will prevent us from shooting down anyone of these planes if indeed they take it over

BigTroll April 29, 2007 9:21 PM

This whole line of thinking is complex, but the real solutions are, too. We are not terror targets JUST because we are Americans, but because of the allies we choose, who we choose to shun or ailienate, how we choose to treat certain people or problems, and the things we decide NOT to become involved in(Read Darfur, Ruanda, ect?)and who we decide to use to further our own percived needs (Read Cold-War leftovers and such) like Osama, Saddam and many others we have put in power to check someone else we hate. This does not touch our own religious zealots in office, or the selfserving political agendas of the far right, the far left, the liars, theives and other extremists in our government. Self-serving politicts comes from power hungry, self-serving politicians. They get elected because too many people are too lazy/complacient/isolationist/defeatist to get off their butts and vote. Or better yet, run for office themselves. All the while, the special intrest groups POUR time, money, personell and extra effort into insuring the election of the candidates who will serve THEIR needs once in office. Those officals are then asured of having their re-election bids supported again. The lobbiests WORK THE SYSTEM. The system fails to work for the intrests of mainstream America because, on the whole, the American mainstream fails to work the system. If you are not part of the solution, you ARE part of the problem. If you want to be represented in Washington, get into the political proccess. If you dont vote, dont BITCH! Still, $6Billion for lasers is, um, GOVERNMENT ORGANIZATION….? Sorry, I mean STUPID.

cesar February 15, 2008 8:39 AM

This the most stupid idea i have seen lately.
Imagine one missile without sensors and receiving the target gps coordinates by radio generated by sensors on the ground.
Where are the sensors to be destroyed?
Do you think Laser can destroy radio waves?
Your country will spend a lot of money in one of the most stupid ideas in the last century.

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