Guarding Airports, Airliners

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Law Enforcement On The Lookout For Missiles...

Ever since the attempted downing of an Israeli airliner in Africa, airports in the United States have secured their perimeters, sometimes using extreme measures. Still convinced that the possibility of a shoulder-fired missile attack is real, officials are adding extra security around their property lines. USA Today reported on an unreleased FAA study listing the use of airborne patrols, ground checkpoints, observation posts and high-intensity lights in areas adjacent to airports. (more)This has caused the closure of many airport area parks, often used by enthusiasts and as popular lunch and coffee-break sites for workers. Now, the only people seen in those parks are police cars and, in some locations, National Guard troops. Some members of Congress have also proposed putting anti-missile systems on airliners. ''The damage a terrorist attack could do would be devastating,'' said Sen. Charles Schumer, (D-N.Y.) ''Do you think anyone would fly for three to six months after an attack?''

...Point-And-Shoot Technology...

So, how effective are these weapons? Once fired, a Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) -- which weighs about 35 pounds -- will home in on the heat emitted from an aircraft engine, while traveling at more than 600 mph. According to USA Today, MANPADS have been used in 35 attacks against civilian airplanes in Africa, Asia, Afghanistan and Central America. Of those, 24 were shot down, killing more than 500 people. All but one of the planes shot down were prop-driven. A Congo Airlines Boeing 727, shot down in 1998, was the only jet. (more)About 700,000 MANPADS have been produced worldwide since the 1970s with many reported to be in the hands of terrorist groups. This kind of data is what fuels Sen. Schumer's plan to arm airliners with chaff, flares or other defensive systems. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge seems cautiously interested. ''I think the first public dollars we ought to expend should be to take a look at the technology itself to see if adaptation can be made,'' he recently said.

...But Where Do We Draw The Line?

But the practical application of that technology in the typical urban environment of most U.S. airports raises another set of questions about how to address this potential threat. The problem lies with the flexibility and range of shoulder-fired missiles. According to the paper, most security experts agree many shoulder-launched missiles can hit an aircraft four miles away at altitudes above 10,000 feet, which definitely puts would-be shooters at an advantage.(more) According to the FAA, that would give terrorists a 150-square-mile area around an airport in which to hide and fire at aircraft that are taking off or circling to land. So much for patrolling the airport fence line. However, there is some debate about this perceived threat. Some government officials point out the lack of specific intelligence on these weapons. ''These weapons pose a threat, but there is no specific credible evidence that they are in the hands of terrorists in the United States or that they plan to use them to shoot down airliners,'' says Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security. He might want to have a glance at Jane's Intelligence Review's article on the subject, which claims up to 27 various guerilla and terrorist groups have the missiles.