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Wednesday, October 08, 2003

Fear of Flying

Since 9/11, the media have occasionally reported on the risk that a passenger aircraft might be downed by a terrorist armed with a shoulder-fired missile. The US sent such missiles to Afghanistan when it was trying to help expel the Soviets. The Pentagon (and CIA) are unable to account for all of them, though I've seen estimates suggesting that not many are missing.

The New York Times reported this week that an unknown number of these missiles might also be missing in Iraq. Over 300 have been turned in recently, and 100s more have been found by the military.

Incoming planes have apparently been targeted in recent weeks, and this is part of the rationale for keeping the Baghdad airport closed to civilian traffic.

Plus, they are easy to smuggle (they weight less than 30 pounds), 50,000 have been sold to developing countries in the past 15 years, and Jane's says that 30 insurgent and terrorist groups have them.


I sat next to a commercial pilot who was a former military pilot last Thanksgiving, when there was the unsuccessful attack in Africa on the Israeli aircraft. I asked him about the threat and he said it was quite real and that there wasn't much that could be done about it short of spending some bucks on countermeasures.


If 1 or 2 or 3 (imagine a coordinated attack) American planes were downed inside the US, air traffic would come to a stop. Who would fly? Airlines and government absolutely cannot secure against this threat from inside the airport or inside the aircraft. Attackers would position themselves near airports, far away from federal security personnel.

At my University, planes fly overhead all day at very close range. I'm confident that this is true all over the country for homes, businesses, schools, etc. Earlier this year, both the US and UK (as the BBC reported) warned against the threat from attacks. Roads near Heathrow in London were apparently closed and vehicles were searched. In 1998, rebels downed a Boeing 737 in the Congo.

In his last (September) visit to "Meet the Press," Vice President Cheney addressed a question about this very threat. He said, essentially, that it would be very costly to secure against these missiles:
Well, there are technologies available. They are extremely expensive if you’re going to put them on every airliner. You've got to make choices here about, you know, when you’re dealing with a risk, there may be certain aircraft flying into certain locales that are especially vulnerable that you may want to deal with. But I wouldn't automatically go to the assumption that we need to put the most sophisticated system on every single airplane.

I've seen estimates suggesting that it would cost $7-15 billion to outfit planes with the countermeasures that would mitigate the threat from these missiles. Israel apparently requires defense mechanisms (flares, essentially) on its planes.

If you want to be reassured, the Heritage Foundation's analysts say that a lot of special training is required to fire a missile (though reporters have found US Stinger training manuals on the web), pilots can be trained in evasion techniques, and effective law enforcement can find the missiles before attackers can use them. They also say some planes could get by with just $200 in countermeasures.

The Pentagon is getting serious about a system that costs $2 million per plane, and I'm pretty sure what kind of system I'd prefer while flying as a passenger.

The US has 6800 commercial airlines, and experts say costs could drop 50% if the devices were mass produced. That means nearly $7 billion for protection.

Senator Barbara Boxer (Calif.) is pushing this system.

At $7 billion, it would cost less than 10% of the last budget supplementary request for Iraq reconstruction. Where would you like to spend your anti-terror dollars?

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