By Tim McLaughlin ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
The nation’s airline industry is a shoulder-launched missile attack away from plunging into a financial tailspin, one that could trigger $1 trillion-plus in financial losses in this country. Five years after the devastating attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. passenger jets still have no response to a shoulder-launched missile that can be purchased on the black market for as little as $5,000 and can hit a target more than a mile away. If beefed-up airline security continues to keep terrorists and their bombs off commercial flights, shoulder-launched missile attacks pose a likely alternative, experts say.
«Terrorists are a lot like electricity: They take the path of least resistance,» said Jack Pledger, an executive at defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. «Instead of working out elaborate methods, terrorists go to the next-easiest thing. If you take out these easy things, you drive them to using» a shoulder-launched missile.
Pledger is director of business development for Northrop Grumman’s infrared-countermeasure program, which is testing a system that disrupts a shoulder-launched missile’s guidance system. The cost of the system would be less than $1 million for each plane if Northrop were to receive enough orders to warrant high-rate production.
But the U.S. government and the airline industry are not ready to spend the billions of dollars it would take to equip passenger jets with anti-missile systems. And even if an initiative started today, it would take several years to equip the several thousand passenger jets operated by U.S. airlines.
The unaddressed threat underscores the physical and financial vulnerability of U.S. airlines, despite massive efforts by the government and industry to prevent hijackings and scary episodes like the thwarted plot in Great Britain that authorities said targeted U.S.-bound commercial flights with liquid explosives.
Last year, a study by think tank RAND Corp. warned that as measures are taken to preclude 9/11-style attacks — including better screening of passengers and luggage — groups like al-Qaida might resort to shoulder-launched missiles because of the obvious vulnerability.
Charles V. Pena, director of defense-policy studies at the Cato Institute, wrote in a study last year that even though no U.S. airliner has been attacked by a missile, «The question may well be when, not if, such an attack will happen.
«The harsh reality is that ground security to defend against (shoulder-fired missiles) is nearly impossible,» Pena said.
A missile attack on a passenger jet would produce the same spectacular result that al-Qaida plotters sought recently in Great Britain. Authorities there say they foiled plans to blow up U.S.-bound planes with liquid explosives smuggled in drink bottles.
A fragile industry
The airline industry isn’t in financial position to afford anti-missile systems. Roiled by sky-high prices for fuel, bankruptcy filings and debt-laden balance sheets, the industry remains fragile. Problems aside, the Air Transport Association, a trade group for the major U.S. carriers, says there’s no better time to fly than now.
Pledger said the industry is waiting for Congress to fund the sort of anti-missile system being tested by Northrop Grumman.
«There’s not really a market» from commercial airlines, Pledger said. «The carriers are interested in the systems, but they see the protection as a government responsibility.»
It would cost an estimated $11 billion to equip 6,800 U.S. commercial jets with anti-missile systems, not including annual operating costs of more than $2 billion, according to government estimates.
But that might be a bargain when you consider the financial reverberations that shook the U.S. after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A Milken Institute study estimated the U.S. lost $47 billion in economic output in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In addition, the loss of stock market wealth was more than $1.7 trillion after the first week of trading following the attacks, the study estimated.
Since 1978, there have been about three dozen shoulder-fired missile attacks on commercial aircraft. All but one happened in combat zones. In 2002, an Israeli passenger jet was shot at with shoulder-fired missiles in Mombasa, Kenya. No one was hurt.
These missiles, numbering up to an estimated 750,000 in military arsenals and the black market worldwide, can be fired by one person with little training. Many of them track the heat of a jet’s engine exhaust. But more sophisticated missiles use guidance systems that can evade jammers and flares, Pledger said.
Northrop’s Guardian aircraft protection system — a pod mounted on the belly of a plane — uses a laser to disrupt a shoulder-fired missile’s guidance system. The company recently received a $55.4 million contract from the Homeland Security Department to complete production on 12 anti-missile systems.
«The market for this is solely driven by government activity,» Pledger said.
Once installed, the anti-missile pods can be swapped between planes in about nine minutes, he said.
Analysts at CreditSights Inc., an independent debt-research firm, recently commented in a research report that one would have thought an airline calamity would have happened by now, given holes in a security net for 35,000 commercial aircraft flying around the world.
«It’s always the little items that cause the troubles,» CreditSights analysts said. «First it was the box cutters and a rule that pilots obey hijackers. Up until 2001, (hijackers) always wanted to land somewhere.
«Now it is jars of Old Spice, Chanel and Listerine that might contain chemical ingredients for an explosive,» the analysts said. «Airline (stocks) were always a hair trigger away from losing their luster — whether that trigger was terrorist attacks, oil prices, the Middle East, Iran, North Korea or Taiwan.»
By Tim McLaughlin ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH