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Editorial: The Missile Threat; Commercial Airliners Are Vulnerable

It’s been an abysmal year for the flying public. Planes have crashed in bad weather, disappeared over the Indian Ocean and tragically crossed paths with anti-aircraft missiles over Ukraine.

That last disaster has led to something approaching panic, as aviation bigwigs convened in Montreal last Tuesday to discuss how to protect planes flying over conflict zones. Here’s one thing that should also be on their minds: what to do about shoulder-fired missiles — a favored weapon of jihadists and guerrillas worldwide and one that looks like a growing threat to commercial aircraft.

The missiles — known as Manpads, for Man-Portable Air Defense Systems — don’t have the range of the weapon that shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. But they’ve been variously described as a “game changer,” “our worst nightmare” and “an unprecedented threat.” They’re cheap, portable and potentially devastating to low-flying planes. Since 1975, they’ve hit civilian aircraft 40 times by one estimate, killing about 800 people.

And they’re everywhere. As many as 750,000 Manpads are stockpiled around the world. They’ve turned up among rebel groups from Ukraine to Somalia. A United Nations report found that missiles from a cache in Libya have been dispersed to Mali, Tunisia and other countries. As jihadists — many of them European — return home from the wars in Syria and Iraq, these weapons may spread further.

Defending against them will require some creativity. One approach — pioneered by Israel after terrorists fired two missiles at an Israeli plane in Kenya in 2002 — involves equipping aircraft with military-style systems that detect incoming missiles and knock them off target.

Doing the same in the U.S. would be expensive, however. An analysis by the Homeland Security Department estimated that equipping large U.S. passenger aircraft would cost more than $43 billion over 20 years. The systems could also violate export-control regulations, require added fuel and maintenance, create onerous liability issues, and make flying some international routes “unprofitable or unachievable,” the study found.

Two other approaches could avoid a lot of those problems.

The first involves drones. Hovering at 65,000 feet over an airport, well above normal air traffic, an unmanned plane could monitor a large area for missile launches and defend planes as they land and take off. Homeland Security tested this idea and found that the drones could reliably detect and track missiles, although their ability to take countermeasures needed some work.

The tests were halted for budgetary reasons, but the concept deserves more study — and not just in the U.S. — as drone technology gets cheaper and better. Using unmanned planes would avoid unduly burdening airlines and obviate the regulatory and practical hurdles of an on-board system. Governments balking at the expense should bear in mind that the total economic impact of a large passenger plane being shot down by one of these missiles could reach $15 billion, according to one study.

The second defense against Manpads involves securing them on the ground. The State Department’s efforts to eliminate dated stockpiles have had some success, disposing of more than 33,000 missiles in 38 countries since 2003. It’s an approach worth expanding. In the future, technological restrictions — such as encryption chips that can disable the weapons, tracking devices that record their location and activation codes that can prevent unauthorized use — might go a long way toward preventing further proliferation.

As scary as it was, the havoc over Ukraine was probably a singular event: Advanced military anti-aircraft systems are usually carefully guarded and extremely difficult to operate. The same can’t be said of Manpads — which require little more than luck and the will to kill.

Bloomberg News