ALPA MANPADS Task Force Update

ALPA line pilot security experts and staff have been examining the threat to airliners from shoulder-fired missiles.

Air Line Pilot,
October 2004, p.16

ALPA first recognized the threat that man-portable air defense systems (shoulder-mounted antiaircraft missiles, or MANPADS) posed to airliners shortly after the Afghan/Soviet conflict of 1979–1989. The lack of accountability for U.S.-supplied Stingers and the subsequent black-market availability of those missiles gave politically and narco-motivated terrorists the ability to attack aircraft with a standoff "shoot and scoot" capability. ALPA was one of the first organizations to announce and actively promote to government and law enforcement agencies its concern about this emerging threat.

The perception of a MANPADS threat increased dramatically after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. ALPA created its internal MANPADS Task Force to evaluate the threat that MANPADS pose and to explore viable solutions and/or responses to that threat. The Task Force consists of ALPA pilots and staff from the safety, engineering, and security disciplines.

MANPADS pose a serious threat, but we have seen a knee-jerk reaction from a number of members of Congress on this issue. Some federal legislators have suggested equipping airliners--at $1 to $3 million per airplane--with counter-MANPADS equipment that may or may not work and that has not been tested on airliners.

On July 22, the U.S. House of Representatives voted, 423-0, to pass a bill that would require the FAA to expedite approval of counter-MANPADS systems on U.S. airliners. The bill also urges President Bush to continue efforts to reduce the number of missiles around the world, through treaties, agreements, and buyback programs. The Senate has not yet considered similar legislation.

This initiative demands a slow, careful study of how any counter-MANPADS system might be adapted to airliners, what the cost of implementation would be, and what the effectiveness of the system as a defensive measure would be. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has asked ALPA’s MANPADS Task Force for our help in developing a reasoned, methodical approach to this issue.

Studying the problem

At this point in our study of the problem, we have drawn the following preliminary conclusions: (1) The MANPADS threat is real, but the actual risk of a catastrophic hit on large aircraft is probably lower than is commonly believed. (2) Depending upon several variables, a MANPADS hit will not necessarily down a large aircraft. (3) Other standoff weapons are at least as great a threat as MANPADS, particularly during ground operations. (4) Equipping all airliners with counter-MANPADS systems will still leave them vulnerable to other types of standoff weapons. (5) NASA has developed and successfully tested a propulsion-controlled aircraft (PCA) system that could be used to safely fly and land an airplane whose flight controls have been damaged or incapacitated. (6) The MANPADS threat to the airline industry is a threat to national security; and thus, the U.S. government should bear the cost of developing counter-MANPADS technology. (7) When counter-MANPADS systems become effective, affordable, and available, and the federal government agrees to pay for installing them on U.S. airliners, that option should be considered.

So that leaves us with many unanswered questions and much work to do. But ALPA tackles issues threatening its members and the traveling public--whether they involve labor, safety, or security--directly, without flinching. We cannot afford to leap blindly into the counter-MANPADS fray; the stakes are too high. A reasoned approach will steer us to the best course of action to deal with this latest threat.

ALPA’s Task Force is now developing preliminary recommendations in three broad areas--prevention, defense, and response.

To prevent or reduce the likelihood of attacks, the government should use other countermeasures, such as gathering intelligence, surveillance, disruption of terrorist plans, and nonproliferation measures to counter all types of standoff threats, including MANPADS. On the local level, airports, municipalities, and law enforcement organizations should work to prevent attacks with MANPADS and other types of standoff weapons by keeping areas around major airports under surveillance. Also, to deter terrorists, the government and industry should inform the public of measures being undertaken to counter MANPADS, perhaps using neighborhood "area watch" programs like those around British airports.

Regarding defense against MANPADS, the DHS should continue its R&D program to develop advanced-technology counter-MANPADS systems that are highly effective and have low acquisition and maintenance costs, and create little or no drag.

Moreover, the DHS should proceed with its test program for counter-MANPADS systems, with the active involvement of ALPA and other stakeholders.

If the DHS test program leads to mandated installation of counter-MANPADS systems on airliners, the U.S. government should buy, install, and maintain the systems. Such systems must be totally automated and require no intervention by flight crews to function correctly.

To improve airlines’ response to MANPADS attacks, the FAA should test aircraft vulnerability to MANPADS hits, and manufacturers should use that information to develop enhancements to reduce the vulnerability of existing and future airliners. Meanwhile, airlines should amend their flight-training curricula to instruct flight crews on planning for a MANPADS attack, on alternate airport considerations in the event of an actual hit, and on emergency flight procedures, particularly for cases in which flight control by conventional means is lost or impaired. ALPA strongly supports manufacturers’ and aviation authorities’ efforts to develop PCA control techniques for each airliner model. Airlines should provide adequate training for flight crews so that they can use PCA techniques to land safely.

Finally, a national alert system should be established to deal with a significant attack. The system would provide for communication of emergency information between government agencies, ATC facilities, flight crews, airline security entities, and other appropriate recipients.

Nature of the threat

We based our analysis on the following facts:

MANPADS are lightweight (about 35 pounds) and relatively easy to use with adequate training. Several types exist. The 1968 Soviet-manufactured SA-7 Grail (or Strela system) was one of the first that the military used; other nations have copied it widely. The SA-7 is readily available and relatively simple to use, but the single-shot probability of a kill with its 2.5-pound warhead has been estimated as low as 25 percent. Also, the SA-7 seeker works only on targets flying away from the shooter, who must wait until a targeted aircraft flies overhead before shooting.

Two other Soviet-developed systems include the Strela 3 (SA-14) and the Igla system (including the SA-16 Gimlet and the SA-18 Grouse). Both have improved infrared seekers, which make deflecting the missile’s path by using heat-generating flares more difficult. The size of the warhead on these systems was increased to improve lethality.

In addition to the prevalent Soviet/Russian MANPADS, others such as the Chinese Vanguard, British Javelin, Swedish RBS-70, French Mistral, and U.S. Stinger are available from global black-market sources. The Stinger, the most advanced, can easily bring down jet fighters and helicopters, even those equipped with countermeasures.

MANPADS have several limitations--including shelf life, limited battery supply, operator proficiency, and limited tracking abilities--that dramatically affect their performance capability. They are basically line-of-sight, VFR-type weapons that may be adversely affected by the location of the sun and other environmental conditions. Military operations in Iraq indicate that only about 20 percent of MANPADS missiles fired at aircraft not equipped with counter-MANPADS electronic counter-measures (ECMs) actually hit the target.

MANPADS require training and practice to use well, but a competent operator needs only 10 seconds or less to acquire a target and launch a missile. MANPADS available on the black market are relatively inexpensive, costing from $5,000 to $150,000. They have a relatively small explosive charge and limited range and ceiling, but can fly faster than Mach 1.5. Airliners cannot outmaneuver them. An estimated 20 manufacturers have produced approximately 30 different types of MANPADS. According to one U.S. Army intelligence assessment, as many as 750,000 MANPADS may be available worldwide, with about 1 percent (approximately 7,500) on the black market.

As of the spring of 2004, all MANPADS attacks on airliners have occurred in war zones, or regions of hostile conflict or suspected terrorist activity. The United States is currently at war with terrorists around the globe and expects to be at war well into the future. The potential MANPADS threat to airliners is expected to continue for some time.

Past attacks

According to Boeing statistics, between 30 and 60 aircraft incidents involving MANPADS have been reported in the last 20 years. Most of these events involved turboprop, piston, and corporate turbine-powered airplanes and helicopters in areas of conflict (e.g., Angola, Sudan, Afghanistan, former Yugoslavia, and former Soviet states).

Boeing has investigated and verified four incidents involving civil jet transports. In the first, the warhead hit but did not detonate. In the second, the missile knocked out an engine, but the flight crew landed successfully. In the third, the missile missed. The fourth attempt was a strike, but the airplane landed with a damaged wing.

Two other events reported as MANPADS attacks against airliners involved a 1994 attack against the B-737 transporting the president of Rwanda, which resulted in his death, and the 1998 downing of a B-727 in Congo. Boeing maintains that substantiating data are not available to confirm that these were MANPADS attacks.

TSA statistics indicate that 36 confirmed MANPADS attacks on airliners have occurred since 1978. Those 36 attacks included 25 in Africa, 5 in Asia, 2 in Latin America, and 3 in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The 36th attack occurred in Baghdad, Iraq, in November 2003 against a DHL A300 freighter.

According to the TSA, 29 of those documented attacks were against propeller-driven aircraft, leaving just 7 MANPADS attacks against jet transports since 1978. That 6 of the 7 transport aircraft that MANPADS missiles hit survived the attacks is very noteworthy. Large transport- category aircraft have had a good survival rate after MANPADS strikes--primarily because the missile’s explosive warhead is relatively small. Even considering airliners’ limited maneuverability, the probability of bringing down a large aircraft with a shoulder-fired missile is not high enough to serve as a predictably reliable tactical approach.

MANPADS countermeasures

Technologies developed for military or other specialized purposes are currently incompatible with airline operations. To be used on airliners, the systems must be adapted to meet airline operational concepts.

One such technology that has potential for airline use is the directed infrared countermeasure (DIRCM), an infrared device that jams missile guidance systems. Currently available DIRCMs must be repaired or refurbished after only about 300 hours of operational use. The military services have the maintenance and logistical infrastructure to meet such a maintenance requirement, but airlines, whose aircraft operate 10-12 hours per day, do not. The cost of the training, ground support equipment, supplies and spares, and logistics trail that would need to be in place at every U.S. airport would be prohibitive. Estimates put this cost at $5 billion to $10 billion per year.

Military missile countermeasures, such as the large aircraft infrared countermeasure (LAIRCM) unit, which uses DIRCM technologies, are in various stages of development and initial fielding. The LAIRCM system defeats the threat missile’s guidance system by directing a high-intensity modulated laser beam into the missile’s seeker. However, these technologies are generally used by military and heads-of-state aircraft that have behind them the operations and maintenance infrastructure necessary to support this system. To be effective in airline operations, ECM systems must be automatic because of the need for instantaneous activation of their defensive capabilities. ECMs’ detection systems are vulnerable to strobe lights and other triggers frequently present in airport environments.

Although ECMs are garnering nearly all of the government attention and scrutiny, other countermeasures against this threat are available. Some would also be effective at countering other types of standoff threats. Aircraft can be "hardened," in some measure, against MANPADS attacks by making them less susceptible to loss of engine power and control systems. The DHS could fund a longer-term R&D project aimed at developing ECMs that are low-cost, highly effective, readily available, and require little maintenance.

Government response to threat

The DHS, in partnership with other federal agencies, is taking an aggressive approach to counter the threat of shoulder-fired missiles to airlines. The DHS Science and Technology Directorate is leading the technology aspects of the effort through its Counter-MANPADS Special Program Office. The DHS effort will help determine the viability, economic costs, and effectiveness of adapting existing military technology to airline use.

The Counter-MANPADS Program uses a robust and disciplined systems engineering approach to select, test, evaluate, integrate, and support countermeasures for airliners. The essence of the Program is to collect information from industry, select the best contractor(s) to perform systems analysis and flight tests, and devise a plan that will permit modifications of airliners with the least disruption and out-of-service costs to the airline industry. The Counter-MANPADS Program is working closely with the Departments of Defense, State, and Treasury as well as with the FAA to provide the DHS with technical and managerial expertise, advice, assistance, and details to support the Department’s efforts to find commercial applications for military technologies.

The DHS Science and Technology Directorate described the Program’s procurement process on Oct. 15, 2003, in Washington, D.C. More than 200 participants from 91 organizations, including ALPA, attended the conference for potential contractors to learn more about DHS’s counter-MANPADS solicitation for private-sector assistance.

DHS leaders appear to be committed to working with the key stakeholders involved in the potential deployment of a counter-MANPADS system. The DHS has solicited input by scheduling executive-level meetings and briefings with industry representatives as the project has evolved.

In January, the DHS announced that it had reduced the original number of 24 potential contractors being considered to just three: Teams led by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman proposed commercial derivatives of DIRCM systems, while the team led by United Airlines offered a version of a decoy-based system developed by Avisys. With that winnowing, the DHS also announced the beginning of Phase I of an aggressive 24-month program to develop MANPADS countermeasures for airliners.

The DHS awarded three 6-month contracts of $2 million per team to each of the three teams, which made presentations to the agency in August. The DHS selected BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman for Phase II of the program, based on four criteria--technical design, management, Phase I performance, and Phase II cost proposal. Each team will receive approximately $45 million apiece for this 18-month final prototype phase.

During Phase II, the contractors’ design solutions will be completed and undergo a critical design review. After the review, the contractors will build, install, and test their prototypes on airliners. Each contractor will deliver two complete units for testing and evaluation. After Phase II ends, the DHS will recommend to the administration and Congress what the agency believes to be the most viable solution to defend against shoulder-fired missiles.

The DHS has established a unit cost target of no more than $1 million per aircraft for the 1,000th system delivered. Both contractors selected for Phase II claim that their proposed systems are within that target and "well below" the operational cost target of less than $500 per takeoff and landing. Costs for aircraft-mounted ECM systems range between $1.3 and $3 million per aircraft.

Airline economics

The airline industry is weathering the "perfect storm" of high fuel prices, terrorist threats, and a war-time environment, plus the rise of low-cost carriers, which are effectively setting fares for the "legacy" carriers. Established hub-and-spoke airlines are fighting for survival, despite the fact that passenger loads are now climbing again and are expected to equal or surpass pre-September 11 levels.

U.S. airlines cannot afford the cost of installing and maintaining counter-MANPADS equipment on their fleets. If counter-MANPADS systems are to be installed on U.S. airliners, the federal government must bear the cost as part of the overall cost of ensuring national security.

ALPA efforts continue

The ALPA MANPADS Task Force is actively monitoring the research, development, and operational activity of airborne ECM equipment and technology, and provides advice and recommendations to the industry from an operational perspective. Development of ground-based MANPADS defenses is an additional area of interest to the ALPA MANPADS Task Force.

The Task Force has reached out to civilian and military elements of the government, and the aviation industry, to impartially assess the level of the MANPADS threat to airlines and to select appropriate countermeasures. ALPA has had meetings and briefings at the staff and executive levels with the TSA, the DHS, the Heritage Foundation, the Pentagon, Boeing, and Airbus, and other sources of research and development in the MANPADS threat analysis.