them towards infrared signals released by an airplane’s engines (6). Flares, which release a stronger infrared signal than the airplane itself, can misdirect MANPADS missiles. These active systems are comparatively cheap, but the flares are heavy, pushing up fuel costs, and a fire hazard, making them unattractive for commercial aircrafts (4). As anti-missile technology developed, missile technology followed suit. New missile designs included ultraviolet sensors to detect airplanes among their decoys, making flares ineffective. Another alternative, called laser-based Direct Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM), attack the infrared sensors themselves (6). On board the aircraft would be a lamp or laser system that, upon detecting an incoming missile, will direct intense infrared energy towards the missile. The missile’s infrared sensor would be overpowered and left unable to track the aircraft. However, this system also struggled to keep up with developments in MANPADS design. They offer protection against most generations of MANPADS, but they need to remain up to date with new seeker models. The protective system could otherwise fail to destroy the seeker and instead become a clearer infrared target.
Development of Commercial Systems In 2004, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) began a 4 year study on adapting anti-MANPADS systems for commercial aircrafts. Two aerospace defense corporations, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman (NG) participated in the study to woo DHS for the defense contract. NG equipped 11 regularly used FedEx cargo aircraft with its Guardian anti-missile system (8). As pictured in Fig 3., NG consolidated their system into a pod that could attach to the bottom of any airplane (9). NG’s Guardian system was relatively cheap at a million dollars per plane after the two hundredth or three hundredth airplane compared to DHS’s cost requirement of a million dollars per plane after the thousandth airplane. Both NG’s Guardian and the BAE’s Jeteye systems used laser-based Direct Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM). In December 2008, the Department of Homeland Security ultimately signed with BAE systems for $29 million (10). Seven months later, DHS announced that an American Airlines Boeing 767 had been outfitted with the BAE Jeteye infrared missile defense system and that the aircraft had just completed its first flight — from JFK to LA. The design for Jeteye was based on systems used in military aircrafts and involved seeker-jamming laser FALL 2013
systems (11). DHS then sought to outfit two more AA 767s with Jeteye in order to confirm the system’s sustainability and reliability.
Abandoning the March The costs of the defense systems proved to be their downfall. Fitting an airplane with such systems can cost between one to four million USD, along with $300,000 each year in operating costs (4). Fitting all U.S. commercial aircrafts with anti-MANPADS would cost about $43 billion over 20 years, so in 2010, the U.S. government ended its funding (3). $276 million had been spent over eight years to research and develop these systems. Given that there have been no instances of MANPADS attacks on U.S. soil, committing further funding to this nebulous threat is difficult for the government to justify, and some experts also argue that, as a result of the current levels of pilot training as well as the robustness of newer aircraft models, the threat of MANPADS is limited (4). However, even the million-dollar price tag for each system is not much in the world of aviation; in-flight entertainment systems for aircraft cost three million dollars on average (12). The threat of MANPADS is real but remains largely theoretical, paling in the face of the hundreds of other risks on the DHS’s tab. In the future, the choices about protecting America may lie not with the Department of Homeland Security but with commercial airliners. They will be the ones determining what their passengers truly need.
Figure 3: Northrop Grumman’s Guardian anti-missile protection system on a FedEx cargo jet. During the race to win the DHS contract antiMANPADS contract, Northrop Grumman equipped 11 FedEx aircrafts, among others, with its new system.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fedex-md11-N525FE-051109-08-16.jpg