Man-portable missiles imperil both military, civilian aircraft.
The widespread availability of man-portable airdefense missiles, known as "manpads," worries U.S. military commanders, who often joke that manpads make for popular wedding gifts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"This is not really true," Handy told reporters. "But that is how folks will describe the threat [of manpads]. There are just an awful lot of them."
Although U.S. forces have had overwhelming control of the air space in Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, they have not been able to curtail the proliferation of manpads. Nonetheless, said Handy, the threat has diminished somewhat.
"The man-portable missile threat is perhaps the greatest threat that we face anywhere in the world, and the proliferation of manpads is well documented," he noted. "Afghanistan still remains a threatening area, certainly not a high threat--in our terms, it is a moderate threat. Iraq is somewhere between high and moderate, depending upon what part of the country you are in.... In Iraq, it remains our greatest concern."
The Air Mobility Command requires that all C17 and C-130 cargo aircraft flying into Iraq be equipped with defensive missile-spoofing systems, such as chaff and flares.
Manpads most often are heat-seeking missiles, employing sensors that home in on the target's infrared signature, such as the engine. Aircraft operators fear heat-seeking missiles mainly because the energy from IR-guided weapons often cannot be detected by the targeted aircraft. Radar-guided surface-to-air weapons, conversely, are relatively easy to detect.
"You have to defeat heat with other sources of heat that aren't your engines," said Handy. Chaff and flares typically are employed to deflect heat-seeking missiles. Many U.S. military transports have a directional IR countermeasure system, which can detect a missile plume, track the incoming threat and send a modulated beam of IR energy to the missile seeker, jamming the guidance signal and veering the weapon off course.
Approximately 50 percent of the Air Mobility Command fleet has anti-missile defensive systems. But 100 percent of AMC's C-17s (105 aircraft), and 90 percent of the C-130s (approximately 500) are so equipped.
The C-130, C-17 and C-5 fleets have flare-based countermeasures systems. Only a handful of C-17s are being equipped with a new laser countermeasure system, called LAIRCM. Many C-130s have radar warning receivers and chaff. The tanker fleet of KC-135s and KC-10s have no defensive systems.
Asked how often U.S. aircraft have been fired upon during OEF and OIF, Handy said: "The trend has been fewer over time of all surface-to-air threats.... You might have a lot during the war, and then they go away. So the trend is a steep trend down." Nonetheless, "there are still sufficient firings and reports of firings that we remain very concerned, to the extent flint we only put DS-equipped aircraft into Iraq. The trends are deceptive."
Military concerns about manpads recently have shifted into civilian aviation, fueling the market for missile-protection systems.
The fear of manpads became a front-page story last November, when alleged terrorists fired two SA-7 surface-to-air weapons against a Boeing 757 airliner chartered to evacuate Israeli civilians out of Mombasa, Kenya.
Christopher Bolkcom, a Congressional Research Service analyst, cited FBI estimates that there have been at least 29 instances in which civilian planes have been hit by shoulder-fired missiles, causing up to 550 deaths. In a February study, Bolkcom also quoted a Rand report that concluded that as many as 40 civilian airliners were shot down by these weapons between 1975 and 1992, causing up to 760 deaths.
CRS said the global inventory of manpads ranges from 500,000 to 700,000 systems, and that prices start at $5,000, up to $30,000 on the black market.
Systems typically are about 5 feet long, 3 inches in diameter, and weigh between 10 and 35 pounds, Bolkcom's study said. Although the SAMs are relatively easy to use, operators do require some training to use them proficiently, the report noted. "They are employed much like a rifle--an individual rests the weapon on his or her shoulder, looks through a sight, and pulls a trigger."
Manpads are effective up to 15,000 feet in altitude, and 3 miles in range. Airplanes are safe at cruising altitude, but vulnerable shortly after takeoff and before landing.
Experts estimate that the window of vulnerability lasts about 10-15 minutes on takeoff and 10-15 minutes before landing.
The Bush administration set up a special panel to assess the vulnerability of U.S. airliners, and Congress has sponsored legislation, asking the Department of Homeland Security to address the problem and figure out how to best protect commercial aircraft.
Equipping aircraft with IR countermeasures is costly--running anywhere from $1 million to $4 million per airplane, depending on the system. But the technologies are available in the military market and easily could be transitioned to civilian aircraft, said Robert L. Del Boca, vice president for IR countermeasures and laser systems at Northrop Grumman Corp.
The company supplies directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) technology for many U.S. and U.K. military aircraft, as well the newer LAIRCM system that, so far, has been installed on three C-17s. Northrop Grumman is under contract to deliver 12 LAIRCM systems for the C-17, eight for the C-130 and five for the MH-53 special operations helicopter and CV-22 tiltrotor aircraft. The DIRCM technology originally was developed in partnership with the United Kingdom.
The LAIRCM mechanism is similar to the lamp-based DIRCM, except that a laser, rather than a lamp, jams the incoming missile.
The LAIRCM system weighs 350 pounds and can be installed in less than a week, Del Boca said at a news conference during the 2003 Paris Air Show. The price for each system is $2 million, assuming an order of 300 aircraft. With a 1,000 aircraft order, the price would drop to $1 million.
The LAIRCM technology would require Federal Aviation Administration approval before it can be installed on any civilian airliner. The certification process-would take at least nine months, said Del Boca.
The laser is more effective than lamp-based systems or broadband jammers, he explained, because it can be used in different frequencies, against older and newer missiles.
Among Northrop Grumman's competitors in this market are several Israeli companies, which unveiled new systems at the Paris Air Show.
One technology, called FlightGuard, was developed by a joint venture of Israel Aircraft Industries' Elta and Israel Military Industries. A prototype onboard a Boeing 737 aircraft was on display at the show.
FlightGuard has a radar that detects surface-to-air shoulder-launched missiles and activates the countermeasures. A countermeasures dispensing system jams and diverts the heat-seeking missiles.
Elbit Systems' subsidiary El-Op unveiled a laser-based system, called Music (multi-spectral infrared countermeasure). It includes a missile warning system; gimbals and infrared tracker, which acquire the missile and track it; and the missile-jamming laser.
This technology, expected to cost about $1 million per airplane, still is in development and will not be ready for testing for several months, the company said.
The Congressional Research Service report, meanwhile, noted that "no single solution exists to effectively mitigate the SAM threat to airliners." Instead, a menu of options may be considered, said CRS, including improvements or modifications to commercial aircraft, changes to pilot training and air traffic control procedures, and improvements to airport and local security.