The Manpad Threat – An Update

The threat from man-portable surface-to-air missiles has worried aviation experts for years, but in the past week it has become far more than a theoretical risk. It is now time for the federal government to undertake a crash program to protect the nation’s civilian airliners from the dangers of “Manpad” missiles, as the weapons are known.

In an article about the Manpad threat last year (“Terror in the Sky – the Manpad Threat,” DefenseWatch, Nov. 13, 2002 ), I noted:

“It’s only a matter of time before [a Russian Manpad] or a Stinger purchased with drugs on the world-wide black market brings down a passenger liner in a way that leaves no doubt about what happened. The havoc experienced by the airline industry following 9/11 will pale against the public’s reaction to a confirmed terrorist downing of a passenger plane. Tragically, there is little we can do about this threat, except to be as vigilant as possible in ferreting out trades before they happen. But they will happen. The inevitable result cannot be avoided.”

That scenario appeared closer to playing out on Aug. 12, 2003, when FBI agents arrested British national Hemant Lakhani in New Jersey and two others in Manhattan who were involved in a plot to import and sell a Russian Manpad to terrorists.

My point last year was that there is little that can be done about these threats except to nip them in the bud, which is exactly what our guys did. Working in close cooperation with British and Russian officials over several months, the FBI finally arrested Lakhani, an unlicensed British arms dealer, when he attempted to sell a Russian SA-18 Igla Manpad to an undercover FBI agent posing as an Islamist terrorist.

There is more to this story, however. It appears that Lakhani did not actually develop his Russian contacts on his own, but had significant help from Russian undercover agents. In fact, the Manpad he procured for resale to the American “Islamist” was not an actual working missile, but a realistic training mock-up supplied by those undercover agents.

ABC News reveled last week that the government’s key witness in this case is an informant seeking leniency on federal drug charges. Furthermore, it appears that Lakhani may not have ever carried out this operation on his own. He appears to have been a small-time operator with a bark more vicious than his bite – until his attitude brought him to the attention of British authorities, who contacted the Americans, who, with the Russians, set Lakhani up for his fall.

So the question here is, do we score one for the good guys, or do we chalk this one up to our guys trying too hard?

I don’t have a problem with locking Lakhani away for his natural life. Regardless of the circumstances, he really did believe he was arranging for a Manpad to shoot down a large American plane. But while our guys were playing cat-and-mouse games with this small-timer, how many real missile sales into the United States went undetected?

This brings us back to the main issue: What can we do to prevent the inevitable besides intercepting potential Manpad shipments?

It turns out, quite a lot. There are viable missile defense systems that can be installed on civilian airliners.

Both Israeli and American defense contractors have been working on the problem ever since it was first identified. Their efforts have produced two approaches to the solution. Both use radar onboard the aircraft to detect incoming missiles. Since all Manpads rely upon some kind of heat-seeking technology, one defensive system automatically launches hot flares to divert the missiles from the plane’s jet engines, which they would otherwise track. The other concept illuminates the incoming missiles with intense laser beams that confuse their guidance systems.

Both systems have been manufactured in Israel and the United States, and have been extensively tested on military and civilian aircraft. The systems appear to work very well, with virtually a 100-percent kill rate against known Manpad types, even the more sophisticated Igla and Stinger systems that include a proximity fuse and sophisticated electronics to overcome jamming attempts.

The flare systems are inherently less expensive than the laser systems, but they introduce an added hazard to civilian aircraft because of their combustibility. The laser systems weigh just over 300 pounds and operate with full autonomy, informing the pilot in real time that a missile is being diverted. The laser system can be retrofitted on any civilian aircraft during a short down-time – 12 to 24 hours.

This is the good news.

The bad news is that current production models cost over $3 million apiece. There is a ready solution for this, however.

In full production, these same laser units will cost only $1.2 million, installed. The U.S. civilian air fleet consists of 6,800 planes of varying sizes. For the sake of this exercise, let’s assume that the average plane can carry 250 passengers.

The initial cost for manufacture and installation of this system on all our civilian passenger aircraft amounts to $8.2 billion. I suggest that Congress pick up this tab immediately, as a “loan” to the airline firms. Then, each passenger will be charged a $25 surcharge commencing immediately to repay this money. The cost would be recovered in 326.4 million passenger flights, which calculates out to 1.3 million airline trips, or just under 200 flights per plane.

This means that the airline industry could fully repay the taxpayers in about a year.

Even though we have intercepted at least one attempt to sell Manpads to terrorists in the United States, without a viable anti-missile defense, the inevitable will happen: A planeload of innocent Americans will be blasted out of the air. We can install systems on all our passenger aircraft that will virtually guarantee that this will not happen.

If Congress chooses, we can accomplish the installation of these laser systems on all 6,800 of our civilian aircraft within a week or so after the defenses are built (give contractors a month to build all 6,800), and pay it off over the coming year at a cost of $25 per passenger, per flight.

In my book that’s a bargain.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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