DHS to spend $100M on air defense

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The Homeland Security Department plans to spend $100 million to develop technologies that would protect commercial jetliners against shoulder-fired missiles, DHS officials disclosed today.

The department announced an aggressive two-year plan to tap existing military technologies and adapt them for commercial use. DHS officials plan to hold a briefing for contractors the week of Oct. 6 to outline the kinds of systems they are looking for to provide protection against man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS).

The move comes as military experts continue to express grave concerns about the potential for surface-to-air missiles shooting down passenger jets. Evidence is mounting that terrorist groups might use such weapons against U.S. airlines.

On Sept. 14, Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on NBC's 'Meet the Press," said antimissile technology is available but "extremely expensive if you are going to put them on every airliner," Cheney said. "You've got to make choices here ... when you're dealing with a risk. There may be a certain aircraft flying into certain locales that are especially vulnerable, and that you may want to deal with. But I wouldn't automatically go to the assumption that we need to put the most sophisticated system on every single airplane."

The DHS budget for fiscal 2004 moving through Congress includes money to study the feasibility of equipping passenger jets with anti-missile shields, a proposal that developed from concerns that terrorists could target an aircraft with a shoulder-held weapon.

DHS' notice outlined a two-part plan to develop the devices for commercial use — a six-month effort to identify the possible solutions and an 18-month program to test and evaluate them.

Asa Hutchinson, DHS undersecretary for border and transportation security, toured BAE Systems in Nashua, N.H., Monday and received briefings on infrared missiles and systems developed by the company to counter the small portable surface-to-air missiles. BAE pioneered technologies against heat-seeking missiles that are widely used by the military. Hutchinson saw a simulation of a BAE laser-based jammer heading off a missile threat against a commercial aircraft.

Kernan Chaisson, the senior electronics analyst for Forecast International News Group, a technology and forecasting firm, said Northrop Grumman is developing a system for commercial jets.

He estimated the price would be about $1 million per aircraft, about half the cost for a military jet. A pod in the shape of a canoe would be bolted under an aircraft with sensors to detect an incoming missile. The system would operate only in a threat area during a takeoff or landing, and if a sensor detects an incoming missile, a laser would destroy the missile or act as a decoy.

"These missiles are available on the open market," Chaisson said about the potential threat to commercial flights.

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