The Unresolved Air Security Threat
This plane lost a major
part of its fuselage (due to metal fatigue) but still landed
safely. A missile would inflict less damage than this.
An unsuccessful missile attack
on the Israeli charter plane flying out of Kenya on 28 November
2002 was briefly headline news. Then in February 2003 London's
Heathrow Airport was surrounded by troops for several days,
apparently due to fear of terrorists attacking planes with
Sadly, missile attacks on
civilian planes are regrettably not something new, and most
security experts predict an increase in this type of terrorist
But the airlines are sitting on
their hands and doing nothing to respond to this danger, due to
the claimed high cost of protecting their planes (and our
How Missiles Work
Anti-aircraft ('Surface to
Air' or SAM) missiles come in many different shapes and sizes.
However, terrorists are most likely to use small sized portable
SAMs, known in the trade as 'Manpads' (MAn Portable Air Defense
These portable Manpads have
a very small rocket in a launching tube. The user simply aims
the rocket at the target and then pulls the launching trigger
(they are very simple to operate). The rocket has a heat seeking
nose that senses the heat from the target, which steers itself
to the target. When the rocket physically hits the target, its
explosive charge is detonated.
Because the missile flies
directly into the hottest thing that it can see in the sky, it
will typically lock onto engine exhausts - these are the hottest
parts of most planes. For this reason, most missiles have to be
fired from behind the plane, to make it easier for the missile
to 'see' the exhaust coming out of the jet (or propeller)
The US Stinger missile and
the Soviet style SA-7 SAMs are the best known varieties of these
Manpads. They typically have a range of 3 - 5 miles, and can
attack targets up to about a maximum height of 10,000-12,000 ft.
It can take a soldier (or
terrorist) as few as five seconds to ready a Stinger, aim it,
and fire it. One terrorist could fire five rockets in a single
minute. And it typically takes only 15 seconds for the missile
to reach its target - it all happens incredibly quickly, with
very little time for any defensive measures.
The technology is not new -
SA-7s have been around for 35 years, and earlier SAMs were in
use before then. They are inexpensive to manufacture, and the
larger armed forces have many thousands of such weapons in their
Because both Russia and the
US (as well as other countries) have regularly provided such
weapons to 'freedom fighters' around the world, there are a vast
number - many thousands - of such weapons unaccounted for. They
can be purchased on the arms black markets for only a few
thousand dollars each.
The missiles don't have an
infinite life. Their batteries eventually fail, but they are
definitely reliable for at least five years, and potentially for
ten years or longer.
When/Where Would a Terrorist
Terrorists would usually
choose to attack planes shortly after they had taken off. At
this point the planes are very heavy and very slow, and their
engines are on full power, giving off the most heat, making the
plane most vulnerable. Plus the plane probably has full fuel
tanks, and if it is over a populated area, there is the
possibility of secondary damage if the plane crashes and its
thousands of gallons of jet fuel burns.
Terrorists are unlikely to
attack planes over water, for the simple reason that a plane
crashing into the sea doesn't cause any additional death and
destruction (except, perhaps, to a few fish). Prime attack
positions will be where a plane crash will cause maximum
Anywhere a plane is below
10,000 ft, it is potentially in danger, whether taking off,
cruising, or landing. The first 20 miles, and the entire last 30
miles (sometimes more) of most flights have the plane below this
The Security Problem
The range of these missiles
is sufficient to allow a terrorist to be located anywhere in the
general vicinity of the 30 or more miles of flight paths into
and out of airports. When taking off, the pilot generally sounds
a little 'gong' noise through the intercom when passing through
10,000 ft, at which point the crew get up and start moving
around, and, when landing, from the time you are told to put
your seat backs upright, the plane is usually below 10,000 ft
and is within range of missiles.
In many cases, airports are
surrounded by industrial or even residential areas that can not
be secured, due to the high concentration of people and traffic
in those areas. A terrorist simply needs to be in a car or van,
come to a stop, jump out with a missile, fire it, then drive off
again (just like the Washington sniper a couple of months ago).
Total time from stopping the car to starting it again (if a
plane was nearby) - less than 30 seconds! By the time anyone
knew what was happening, it would be much too late.
This situation is essential
to keep in mind when understanding the nature of the risk and
how to protect against it. There is no way that any type of
security force can react in less than 30 seconds to a car
pulling over, a person getting out, readying, aiming, and firing
a Manpads. And the suggestion, sometimes made, that people in
'at risk' neighborhoods should be encouraged to report
'suspicious activity' to the authorities is laughably naive. By
the time a person had finished dialing 911, the missile would
have already been launched. Unless you have a constant presence,
everywhere in the at risk areas, of heavily armed (fully
automatic weapons, not just pistols) security personnel, a
determined terrorist will always be able to launch a SAM with
no-one able to stop him in time.
Although authorities around
the world have several times tried to suggest otherwise, for the
reasons listed above, it is absolutely not possible to
prevent missile attacks by 'securing' the ground underneath
airplane flight paths.
The only way to guarantee
safety would be to completely close off a strip ten miles wide
and fifty miles long around every airport's approach paths and a
strip ten miles wide and twenty miles long around every
airport's take-off routes, too. Remember that airports have
multiple paths that planes take in and out, and you basically
end up needing to have a 'secure zone' with an almost 50 mile
radius around every commercial airport in the country. This is
obviously both impossible and impractical.
How Likely is it that a Missile
would Hit an Undefended Plane
Assuming that the plane has
no countermeasures (see below) then the probability of it being
hit by a missile is anything up to about 90% in a 'perfect'
If the missile is in poor
condition, and if it is not correctly sighted and fired, or if
the plane isn't in a good position relative to the missile
launch, then of course this probability greatly reduces, and it
seems that typical 'success' rates for missiles being fired in
real world conditions against undefended planes are in the 50%
range. In addition is another unknown - the number of times that
would-be attackers don't launch missiles due to being unable to
get a good firing solution.
How the Israeli 757-300 Avoided
This is an intriguing
mystery. Officially, the Israeli plane was not carrying any
countermeasures, but somehow two missiles both missed the plane.
There are several possible explanations - maybe the missiles
were old and faulty, and maybe they were incorrectly fired.
Some insiders guess this
plane did indeed have countermeasures. It is generally believed
that all El Al planes have missile countermeasures. This was a
charter plane, not an El Al plane, but it may also have been the
charter plane that the Israeli Prime Minister had been using
just several weeks earlier - and you just absolutely know, for
sure, that anything the Israeli Prime Minister flies on would
have lots of protection.
There have also been some
puzzling descriptions about noises coming from the rear of the
plane while the missiles were approaching. That suggests, to me,
the sound of flare dispensers firing out their flares.
And so, although the
Israelis officially deny this, it is likely the plane was
equipped with counter measures, and the counter measures
were probably the main factor enabling the plane to escape from
the two missiles. Defenseless planes are unlikely to be as
What Damage Would Occur
Strangely, a civilian
airplane is much harder to destroy than a military jet. A heat
seeking missile is probably going to hit and explode either
right inside an engine or else very close to it.
In the case of a military
jet, its engines are tightly integrated inside the main fuselage
of the plane, and an explosion in an engine will probably damage
a lot more than the engine alone. But a regular passenger plane
has engines suspended on pylons from the wings. An explosion
inside one of those engines may cause less damage. Sure, the
engine will probably be destroyed, but all jets can safely fly
on one less engine.
The unknown is whether the
explosion will then cause pieces of metal to fly into the wing
and possibly damage hydraulic lines, control surfaces, or fuel
tanks, and what the implications of this additional damage might
Manpads don't have very
large warheads. Typically they have perhaps 2-4 pounds of high
explosive. This is enough to destroy an engine or to cause
localised damage to part of a wing, but it may not be enough to
cause the wing to fall off, and it may or may not cause critical
damage that prevents the plane from limping back to an airport.
Perhaps it is a good thing that attacks are only likely close to
airports - an injured plane would not need to fly very far to an
Of the five Boeing 727s and
737s hit by Manpads, three were destroyed (and remember that the
727 is more vulnerable than the 737 due to having its engines
close to the fuselage).
Another attack occurred in
November 2003 when a DHL A300 was attacked by one or perhaps two
missiles while taking off from Baghdad. One missile hit the
plane on a wing, but it remained structurally intact, as can be
seen from the two images above. The plane was able to return and
land safely at the airport.
Joining theory and observed
reality together would suggest that there is probably slightly
less than a 50% chance of a single missile hit causing a modern
passenger plane to crash. Two missile hits would increase that
probability up to perhaps 67%.
How to Defend Against SAMs
There are five main types of
countermeasures against an IR SAM attack.
The first is evasive
maneuvering of the plane to avoid the missile. However, that
is close to impossible for a passenger plane in the few
minutes immediately after take-off or before landing.
The second is to release
small flares - little matchbox sized objects that burn very
intensely and hotly for a short while. In theory the missile
sees the flare and ignores the airplane. A potential problem
is that flares, if ejected at low altitude, may land on the
ground (or on people or cars or buildings) while still
burning, causing damage and potentially starting fires.
The third is to use an IR 'jammer'
- devices on the plane that send out special IR radiation
that confuses the missile and causes it to fly off course.
The fourth is a new
capability of using a high power laser to burn out the
seeker head on the missile so that it is 'blinded' and flies harmlessly
off course. I don't know much about this, but it seems to me
that a laser powerful enough to burn out the seeker head
could burn out a lot of other things, too, that came in its
A fifth possibility is to
have military fighters escorting all passenger planes in and
out of the highest risk areas around airports. Although this
has been suggested, the costs of this would be exorbitant,
air traffic control issues would be a nightmare, and it is
not a practical solution.
Worst of all, the mere presence of
a fighter plane doesn't mean that it will be able to defend
a civilian airliner against missile attack. What would
it do? Sacrifice itself? Try and shoot the
How Effective are
The debate about whether
planes should be equipped with missile countermeasures seldom
extends to considering if the countermeasures would actually be
effective. There seems to be an unstated assumption that if
you're going to spend millions of dollars to equip a plane with
missile defenses, then 'of course' they will work.
The reality is not so
encouraging. Considering the above list of five strategies, the
first defense (evasive maneuvering) is not a practical option
for a passenger plane. The fifth defense (fighter plane patrols)
is unrealistic and unlikely to be effective.
The fourth possibility - a
laser beam - is still experimental and as yet unproven. Which
leaves the two remaining concepts - flares and jammers. These
have only limited effectiveness against the latest generation of
SAMs, which have much greater 'intelligence' enabling them to
defeat some countermeasures and increasing their likelihood of
reaching their target.
Even the most sophisticated
combination of defensive strategies are unlikely to provide 100%
protection against the latest generation of SAMs. For
example, the Russian SA-18 Igla missile has a dual band IR
seeker to prevent it being confused by flares or IR jammers.
There are thousands of SA-18s in military inventories around the
How Likely is a Terrorist
As we improve security in
other parts of aviation, using missiles to crash planes is
becoming increasingly the easiest option for terrorists to take.
This is not a new threat. An
FAA study in 1993 noted that, as passenger and baggage screening
became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise.
And the attempted attack on the Israeli plane is not the first
such attempt. Estimates suggest as many as 42 civilian planes
have been fired on in various places around the world since the
1970s (killing over 900 passengers).
Missiles are plentiful and
freely available. A massive 5,592 missiles were captured from
Al-Qaeda bases during the Afghanistan campaign last year. "There
are vast numbers of these missiles around in the world," said
Charles Heyman, editor of Jane's World Armies, an annual
publication which tracks international arms supplies. "You can
get one from under $5,000 from arms traders with connections."
Jane's estimates that 27 militia groups and terrorist
organizations currently own portable anti-aircraft missiles.
Neither are U.S. stockpiles
completely safe. After completing an inspection of U.S. military
storage depots, the General Accounting Office concluded that
inventory control of domestic shoulder-fired missile stockpiles
has been so poor that the military could not account for
hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of its portable missiles.
In May this year, the FBI
warned U.S. law-enforcement agencies and airlines that
intelligence reports indicated Islamic extremists may have
already smuggled SA-7s and U.S.-made Stinger anti-aircraft
missiles into the United States.
The TSA held a classified
meeting with 25 airline CEOs and others in the industry on 5
November 2002 to discuss the danger posed by missiles, according
to their spokesman. But the TSA's jurisdiction is only from the
airport perimeter fence and inwards - attacks are most likely to
occur some miles distant from the airport itself.
"You need to be mindful of
and concerned about the fact that these things are fairly small,
and it is not difficult to smuggle them anywhere," said a U.S.
government official, speaking on condition of anonymity. A
second U.S. official said an attack against a U.S. airliner
using a shoulder-fired portable missile is a danger. "It's an
issue that concerns us," the official said.
"This is not only an Israeli
problem," said Avi Pazner, an Israeli government spokesman.
"What can be done against an Israeli aircraft, can easily be
done against a European or American one."
So far, neither the
government nor the airline industry has been able to do much to
mitigate the danger of what the head of one security firm
describes as 'aviation's dirty little secret.' "(If a) dedicated
person wanted to shoot down a plane, there's nothing to stop
them," said Todd Curtis, the creator of
and a former Air Force officer and Boeing safety analyst.
Simple to launch, such
weapons "are a serious threat, (and) not enough is being done to
deal with it," said retired Adm. Thomas Moorer, who served as
chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for President Ronald
An interesting and
comprehensive analysis of the problem and some partial solutions
is on the
Federation of American Scientists website.
What the Airlines are Doing
In a single word - nothing.
When I first wrote this, in
December 2002, a set of basic defensive measures was being
quoted as costing about $3 million to install on an airplane.
This price would likely drop substantially in the case of a
massive program to install systems on the entire US airplane
fleet. Subsequently, this cost estimate has several times
reduced, and now (April 03) some authorities are suggesting that
defensive measures could be fitted for as little as $1 million
Even if it costs $3 million,
this amount - as a percentage of the cost of a new plane
(anything up to $200+ million dollars) - is truly insignificant.
But, multiply it by thousands of planes, and it comes to
billions of dollars, which the airline industry is unwilling to
invest to protect against what it considers to be a future
possible threat (as opposed to a clear and present danger).
While November's incident in
Kenya may have woken up both the government and the airline
industry to the threat, experts have long felt frustrated in
their attempts to sound the alarm. During a classified briefing
at the annual Aircraft Survivability conference in Monterey in
1999, a Federal Aviation Official described the difficulty in
getting airlines to address the threat of shoulder-fired
A subsequent report from the
National Defense Industrial Association, which sponsored the
conference, noted that "since there have been no confirmed
incidents in the US, it is difficult to convince aircraft
manufacturers and airline companies of the potential cost
benefits to making the aircraft less susceptible and less
vulnerable to Manpads."
"The threats are real and
the countermeasures exist," said a retired government
anti-terrorism expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. "Some
of us are perplexed as to why a greater sense of urgency hasn't
been demonstrated in securing our airspace."
Said Daniel Benjamin, the
former director for counterterrorism for President Bill
Clinton's National Security Council: "No shortage of studies
have been done, and up till now, the industry has been unwilling
to consider paying for the defensive measures.
"In the post-9/11
environment, with Washington dictating more in the way of
security improvements," Benjamin added, "there needs to be
another look at the issue. With many airlines facing huge
financial problems and some staring at insolvency, the problem
of paying for the improvements -- which is considerable -- is
not going away."
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla,
chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned in
December 02 of new terrorist attacks on U.S. targets and called
on the Bush administration to take immediate steps to protect
U.S. airliners from attacks by shoulder-fired missiles.
Sen. Richard Shelby of
Alabama, the ranking Republican on the intelligence committee,
said American aircraft in U.S. airspace were especially
vulnerable. "There are thousands of these surface-to-air
missiles around the world," he said.
"The airline industry is
very, very vulnerable," said Steve Luckey of the Air Line Pilots
It seems blindingly obvious
to everyone that this is a major and present threat to our air
safety. But are we doomed to yet again suffer from reactive
rather than proactive security?
Will we have to wait until
after a terrorist successfully destroys one or more US planes,
and then suffer an extended period of vulnerability while the
airlines take months to equip their fleets with countermeasures?
Will it take another 9/11
type event before anyone responds to this danger?
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6 Dec 2002, last update
21 Jul 2020
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