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The Military Government Transportation Hardware Politics

Anti-Missile Technology To Be Tested on Commercial Jets 490

Hugh Pickens writes "As many as three American Airlines passenger jets will be outfitted this spring with laser technology intended to protect planes from missile attacks. The tests, which could involve more than 1,000 flights, will determine how the technology holds up under the rigors of flight. The technology is intended to stop attacks by detecting heat from missiles, then responding in a fraction of a second by firing laser beams to jam the missiles' guidance systems. A Rand study in 2005 estimated it would cost about $11 billion to protect every US airliner from shoulder-fired missiles. Over 20 years, the cost to develop, procure and operate anti-missile systems could hit $40 billion."
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Anti-Missile Technology To Be Tested on Commercial Jets

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 06, 2008 @07:50PM (#21936438)
    Not a single passenger jet has been downed from the type of missiles these "high power lasers" are supposed to be able to prevent. Not a single one.
  • by Cosmicalstorm ( 1124967 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @07:57PM (#21936498)
    A german police chief was asked on TV the day of the London bombings what extra measures should be taken. He said: "None. The measures are effective as they can be; we cannot avoid all terrorist attacks just as we cannot avoid all crime." I was impressed, He was a really intelligent man. A shame nobody bothered to inform the manufacturers and proponents of this system about this particular wisdom.
  • RPG Threat (Score:4, Insightful)

    by moehoward ( 668736 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @07:58PM (#21936500)

    The real threat is someone standing at the end of a runway (on a building top or in a road) and firing an RPG. Didn't the IRA do that? Seems that RPGs would be easier to get then frickin' heat-seeking missiles.

    This seems like overkill given the threat level. I'm willing to live with the risk of heat-seeking missiles shooting me down in mid-flight.
  • Feed the fear (Score:3, Insightful)

    by EmbeddedJanitor ( 597831 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:00PM (#21936526)
    Politicians, particularly right wing, love fear and feeding the "we're under attack" myth. It makes people vote "the right way" - important in an election year. It also lubricates the process for pork barrel spending.

    As others have pointed out, this is all rather silly since missile attacks do not constitute a large threat. Still, it should be easy to pressure the decision makers to adopt this technology. Imagine if you were to have vetoed this technology and a plane got shot down. Far easier to spend Joe Citizen''s money. After all, $11bn is only $30-odd per US citizen.

  • by dpbsmith ( 263124 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:08PM (#21936620) Homepage
    "The use of a signal to mimic a missile attack has already been tested in the air, said Tim Wagner, an American Airlines spokesman." Yeah, right. So they're not going to test it with real missile, which doesn't give a lot of confidence that it will actually work.

    Sounds like that "successful" antimissile test they did a year or so ago, where the missile was conveniently equipped with a GPS unit that continuously radioed its position to the antimissile system.

    On the other hand, are they going to use signals to "mimic" things that are not missile attacks... like near-miss encounters with other passenger jets, for example?

    "Burt Keirstead, director of BAE's commercial airline protection program, said BAE's contract requires it to prove that Jeteye will operate without failure for 3,000 hours of flight, and sets a goal of 4,500 hours."

    What constitutes a failure? If it shoots at a Medivac helicopter and brings it down, did it succeed or fail?
  • by Goonie ( 8651 ) <<robert.merkel> <at> <>> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:09PM (#21936626) Homepage
    The Wikipedia lists five [] incidents where these missiles have allegedly been launched at civilian aircraft.

    Of the four confirmed firings, two planes were shot down, one was hit but landed safely, and another missed entirely.

    That said, there are likely to be ways that $10 billion could be spent to save more lives. For instance, your chances of surviving a heart attack are better in a casino than in a hospital [], because you're more likely to receive defibrillator treatment quickly in a casino. Would $10 billion spent there, or on making sure best practice for avoiding MRSA [] infections was adopted nationwide, be a better investment? Almost certainly. But people place a far higher value on avoiding spectacular deaths than mundane ones.

  • by realdodgeman ( 1113225 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:21PM (#21936744) Homepage
    I don't care what his personal beliefs are.

    I do not live in USA, but if Ron Paul becomes president it will at least be an option in a few years. For now I will stay in Norway where politicians are sensible and work for the good of the people.

    Why do I care at all?
    If USA implements Real ID it can spread to other countries. If the dollar crashes it will cause worldwide economic chaos. If the US keeps building bases all over the world, terrorism will become a increasingly bigger threat to the western world. If Iran gets attacked by the US nobody knows what is going to happen. If US politician keeps ignoring their constitution, the world's biggest super power may soon be a police state.
  • by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:29PM (#21936804) Journal
    Let's see, 50,000 people a year in the USA die in car accidents. NONE have died from stinger missiles, but the war machine wants to keep people afraid and docile, so they'll spend billions on a defence that will likely never be needed, or if it is, will only kill a microscopic fraction of the total number of people who have ever flown.

    In the meantime, they cut out all the funding for alternative energy funding in the last bill, so the USA can continue to be dependent on the oil tha sits under the homes and deserts of the people they want to defend their airliners against. Do we detect a pattern of utter stupidity here?


  • by Xenographic ( 557057 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:31PM (#21936826) Journal
    > A shame nobody bothered to inform the manufacturers and proponents of this system about this particular wisdom.

    You don't get people to pay you $11 billion by telling them that your product is a waste of time and money.

    That said, I'm impressed that someone in law enforcement had the guts to be honest like that on TV. I wish we had some of them.
  • Re:how many? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by InvalidError ( 771317 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:33PM (#21936848)
    Since the airplane laser is there to "jam" the missiles' optical/IR tracking instead of destroying them, it should certainly be possible to redesign the missiles' guidance system to use the airplane's anti-missile jamming laser as a homing beacon, turning the defense mechanism into a practical bull's eye target.

    Since laser light is directional, a simple pin-hole shadow mask in front of a CCD would be enough to compute a satisfactory approach vector to keep the target within re-capture range.

    Like many DHS and other agencies' schemes, they may initially look good on paper (particularly to the uninformed public) but are likely to be proven worthless money sinkholes practice since they rely on the premise that terrorists will be unable to adapt... much like the MPAA was banking on AACS, HDCP and BD+ never being broken. At best, I think this is a $40B money scheme to make the promoters' friends richer.
  • Re:how many? (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Oktober Sunset ( 838224 ) <sdpage103@yahoo[ ].uk ['.co' in gap]> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:40PM (#21936900)
    Yes, and Akabar with his old Cold War era shoulder launched missile is going to make the modifications himself.
  • by Veinor ( 871770 ) <> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @08:42PM (#21936942)
    With credit to Pope Guilty of the SA forums: Ron Paul wants to define life as starting at conception [], build a fence along the US-Mexico border [], prevent the Supreme Court from hearing Establishment Clause cases or the right to privacy [] (which would bar atheists from holding office in Texas, prevent the striking down of antisodomy laws, prevent the government from spending any money to enforce its decisions, among many other things), pull out of the UN [], end birthright citizenship [], and abolish the Federal Reserve [] in order to put America back on the gold standard []. He was also the sole vote against divesting US federal government investments in corporations doing business with the genocidal government of the Sudan. [] Oh, and he believes that the Left is waging a war on religion and Christmas [], he's against gay marriage [], is against the popular vote [], wants the estate tax repealed [], is STILL making racist remarks [], and believes in New World Order conspiracy theories []. He also said: "If you have ever been robbed by a black teen-aged male, you know how unbelievably fleet-footed they can be" and "Opinion polls consistently show that only about 5 percent of blacks have sensible political opinions, i.e. support the free market, individual liberty and the end of welfare and affirmative action."
  • Re:how many? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by badasscat ( 563442 ) <basscadet75@y a h o o . com> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:01PM (#21937064)
    As this is the same system that's been used by the US military for years, and no other world armies we've faced have yet been able to adapt despite multi-billion dollar yearly defense budgets, what makes you think Al Qaeda's going to have better luck?

    If defeating the system sounds so simple to you, perhaps you should pitch your idea to one of these foreign governments. Obviously, you've thought it through a lot more thoroughly than they have.
  • Re:Feed the fear (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:13PM (#21937152)
    Hell TERRORISTS don't constitute a large threat, relatively speaking. Seriously, I'd rather shut down EVERY new anti-terrorist program and remove every new law we've put in place, and put it somewhere that would actually save lives daily. Like, I dunno, government funding for cancer research or research on any number of major daily causes of death [], or even more police presence to prevent automobile accident deaths.

    ANYTHING but anti-terrorist shit. Terrorism has ONLY claimed about 4000 lives in the US in the entire 30 years I've been alive. What a fucking waste of my tax dollars.
  • by Firethorn ( 177587 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:13PM (#21937160) Homepage Journal
    This is just wasted effort. It would be better to spend the 40 billion dollars on training security staff.

    This strikes me much like many other proposals: There are many other fields that a $40 billion investment would save many more lives. Improving car crash standards a bit, for example.

    It's like banning the .50BMG in California because of it's usefulness to terrorists. Never mind that there haven't been many incidents worldwide of terrorists using it, much less in the USA/Europe. The only case I know of where it was used in a crime caused no fatalities - oh yeah, and it was the guy who built a tank out of his bulldozer. Not exactly a guy concerned with practicality. For the cost of a .50BMG rifle you can get a lot of explosives - which terrorists do have a history of using.

    Yes, I'm performing risk analysis - I'm not saying that terrorists won't manage to shoot down a commercial aircraft with a manpad, but is it worth $40 BILLION to try to stop it? A full plane would average what, 300 people? Even if it saves a plane - that's $133 million per life saved. Makes health care look cheap.

    Right now, going by history - 300 people X zero average incidents per year = 0 average dead per year.

    I mean - this system isn't guaranteed to work, even if they do shoot a IR missile at the plane(and the odds are currently low that they will).

    I think we need to step back and stop concentrating on air travel so much. I mean, the terrorists attack plenty of places other than airlines. That was, relatively speaking, a one time deal. We'd be better off spending the money protecting malls and schools.
  • Re:So... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by lakeland ( 218447 ) <> on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:28PM (#21937246) Homepage
    Or, more accurately...

    " to protect planes from manportable systems (which used to be IR guided way back in '07)..."

    If this technology is put into place, terrorists will use something else - maybe a camcorder on their rocket, maybe an AA gun...
  • Re:how many? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Cassius Corodes ( 1084513 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:38PM (#21937312)
    I think you underestimate the sophistication of terrorists. Couple this with technical support from states like Iran and its not very hard to come up with a specialised weapon. Having said that it much easier to rely on other ways of taking down an aircraft (ie bomb inside), or just going after an altogether different and easier target. As the French know, if you build your walls too big then the Germans just go around them. Damn Germans.
  • by Simonetta ( 207550 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:45PM (#21937362)
    Since it is primarily the Arabs who are telling the world that their God have given them permission to shoot down commercial airliners, wouldn't it be cheaper in the long run to just not give or sell anti-aircraft missiles to the Arabs? You don't hear the Dutch, the Peruvians, or the Mongolians talk about how they are going to heaven by killing Americans, only Arabs. It would be cheaper to just not give missiles to Arabs.

        But the whole point is not to save money or lives, the whole point is make sure that the 40 billion dollars is going to your company to make technology to protect against what is currently a non-existent threat. (If the threat were real, then the Arabs would be shooting down planes with the Stingers that the Americans gave them twenty years ago).

        The only real threat is the possibility that the 40 billion dollars would be spent on health care, education, housing cost, or tax relief, And not be directed to your company and your golden parachute. Then when the money has gone to your company to make anti-missile technology, then actual missile will be distributed to the Arabs where they will make their way to the terrorist groups who will shoot one off occasionally at an airplane.

        When you understand that the whole point of the war on terror is ensure an endless stream public monies go to huge expensive war technology contracts instead of other public needs, then you understand the entire point of the permanent endless war on terror.

        Just don't buy any of that cheap foreclosed pennies-on-a-dollar real estate that is right next to the airport!
  • by arthurpaliden ( 939626 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:47PM (#21937388)
    Friends like the United States. Remember that it was the United States that gave the Taliban the high teck wepons used against the Soviets in Afganistan.
  • Re:how many? (Score:0, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 06, 2008 @09:50PM (#21937400)
    why is it that slashfags think that they know everything and everyone else is just a stooge?
    do you honestly think that engineers with more experience in optics and lasers than you can imagine haven't considered this?
    just another slashfag who thinks his science channel education can trump the real professionals. the only real question here is why are mods so easily fooled into modding this crap up?
  • Re:how many? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Rich0 ( 548339 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @10:46PM (#21937762) Homepage
    I could only see that being hard to defeat if the laser-firing device is dropped from the plane. Otherwise - if the missile identifies the source of the laser and homes on it, why would it steer out of the sensor FOV? It could really only work that way due to some assumption in the guidance software that is being exploited.

    Now, if the laser is dropped from the plane then homing on it obviously won't get you very far, and it would likely be difficult to avoid its blinding effects. Then again, if the missile just maintains course or angles upward slightly, then it is likely to lose the laser from its FOV before the target - in which case it can re-acquire (and it hasn't lost much useful energy if it gains altitude).

    This is of course a win-win for arms manufacturers. With this technology becoming mainstream it can be safely assumed that enemy aircraft will be quickly equipped with it. That means that you need to upgrade all your missiles to defeat this tactic. That means that the anti-missile system is now useless and it needs an upgrade as well.

    Kind of like selling good-quality combat jets to "friendly" nations - it just means that you lose your technological edge and need yet another generation of jets to replace them...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 06, 2008 @10:47PM (#21937772)

    Only through dumb luck. ... It's only a matter of time, and everybody knows it.

    So this new anti-missile technology is going to be added to all their aircraft, including obsolete models like the MD-83 and 757 that got fired on? Nope, as with their winglets and Wifi upgrades, they're only doing this on a couple of their newer 767's.

    The fact that terrorists have failed to shoot down 20-year-old civilian aircraft a few times obviously means only their newer, more expensive planes are actually at risk, I guess. Wouldn't want to lose all the money they spent on those cool winglets!

    You know what the FAA does when it has a situation that it knows will eventually result in a disaster costing hundreds of lives? They try to fix it. That's part of their job.

    You're absolutely right. The fact that the FAA doesn't seem to care about this is kind of a big giveaway. Lasers in pilots' eyes? FAA to the rescue! Missiles fired at airliners? Meh.

    For those who didn't RTFA, this is not the FAA, but rather the DHS, who have a long history of Security Theatre. These are the same geniuses who prohibit you from carrying more than 3 ounces of water on a flight. They'd do better to get Chuck Norris to ride along.
  • by Oligonicella ( 659917 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @10:56PM (#21937822)
    On 9/10, you could have said that about hijackers flying a plane into a building and killing 3000 people. What would be your point?
  • by bogjobber ( 880402 ) on Sunday January 06, 2008 @11:49PM (#21938160)

    Why spend $11 billion to stop a threat that is basically non-existent? Those incidents you pointed out happened in insecure areas, and even then they didn't succeed. The threat to American passenger planes in the US (and really 99% of everywhere else) is so small you probably can't even measure it. This is a boondoggle that will do nothing other than take tax money and put it into the hands of defense contractors. That money could be put towards something far more productive than this, and something that could save far more lives.

    Ultimate safety is not possible, and it's not even desirable (IMHO of course). If we spent this much money on protecting every conceivable way for terrorists to attack us, we would go bankrupt. Preventative action is only possible to a certain extent. Take care of the low-hanging fruit, then let the rest of it be handled by law enforcement.

  • Re:how many? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @12:28AM (#21938406)
    I'm guessing the laser is meant to confuse heat seeking missiles. The other "world armies" certainly have radar guided missiles that are completely immune. Also, since US air force planes carry flares, the laser system must not be perfect even for heat seekers. Plus the US does lose planes occasionally. I believe there are some movies about a downed pilot in the Gulf War (can't remember whether it was episode I or II).

    Laser guided missiles certainly do exist. The US uses them extensively, as do many other nations. I wouldn't be at all surprised if you could buy them, and it's not that hard to build a laser guidance system. You could certainly hire a not so reputable engineering firm to do it for you. Much easier than building a nuke, for example, yet we're assured that's a credible threat.
  • Re:how many? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2008 @01:33AM (#21938768)
    That is true for normal IR guided missles, but what about a missile that has additional sensors to detect if a laser is being used and if so it switches to a secondary guidance system designed to home in on the laser?
  • Re:how many? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Spillman ( 711713 ) <> on Monday January 07, 2008 @02:38AM (#21939192)
    Wouldn't it be cheaper to equip these planes flare systems? []

    For more information see also []

    Seriously though, what a waste of money!
  • Re:how many? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Z00L00K ( 682162 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @02:41AM (#21939218) Homepage
    Simple modification is to skip all the intelligent target tracking and go ballistic. Requires more of the shooter. There are also systems that are wire-operated and lead to the target by the shooter. The range of weapons are too wide to provide any reasonable protection. And just about any machinegun [], but probably not a submachinegun [] will do a job of causing problems for a modern airliner. Only difference is that it may require that the shooter is a bit closer to the target.

    So it's just a waste of money and it will only cause the below average Joe to feel a bit safer...

  • Re:how many? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @03:38AM (#21939518) Journal
    Actually, a machine gun would only be effective in take off and landing scenarios. It isn't likely that the bullet would reach the altitude of a passenger jet's normal cruising altitude with any accuracy if it is even possible.

    A surface to air missile on the other hand is designed specifically for the task. There have [] already been suggestions of planes going down because of missile fire. It might be more then just making people feel safe or safer.

    Either way, I don't see it as a negetive. Simply saying all the plane are outfitted and only randomly doing so takes that attack vector off the market for the most part. Not too many people are going to be willing to waist their time and money on something not likely to work from a cash strapped terrorist stand point. A failed launch/attack not only costs money but it would jeopardize the cell and all the connections to the cell. If there is a good idea that it won't work, they would just move on to something that might stand a better chance of succeeding. so expect a couple of these to be outfitted, expect a claim that all plane have them and expect some public display on how good they are or how accurate they are. Your probably right in that they are more for show but they have more of a benefit then making Joe Cool feel safer.
  • by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @04:17AM (#21939754) Homepage
    Just putting bullets through fuselages and killing the occasional passenger would be enough to bring total chaos and massive economic harm to the USA.

    This is why spending money on anti-missile systems is stupid - what Bruce Schneier calls "Movie Plot" security.

  • Re:how many? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Monday January 07, 2008 @04:59AM (#21939972) Journal
    Where do you get that idea from? Other militaries adapted to this years ago. Radar guided missiles, wire-guided missiles and simple AA guns have been around for decades.

  • Re:how many? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Lonewolf666 ( 259450 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @06:26AM (#21940394)
    Sooner or later, upgraded models will leak to Akabar & friends through one of the following:
    -Black market
    -The USA temporarily allying with a bunch of mujahedin that fight an enemy of the US (remember how they delivered Stinger missiles to Afghanistan in order to hurt the Russians?)
    -Collapse of a nation state that had such weapons for its armed forces, the weapons being looted by who-knows-who.

    It's only a matter of time...
  • Re:Just curious... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by aadvancedGIR ( 959466 ) on Monday January 07, 2008 @07:57AM (#21940768)
    Of course, it won't magically disapear, so it will land someplace and might explode, but a 20kg missile hitting one building and killing a few unlucky persons is nothing compared to a large commercial plane filled with tens of tons of highly flamable fuel hitting the same building plus a few dozen more, potentially killing hundreds, if not thousands, ground victims.

    Everyone knows that commercial planes can be misused as WMD, the real question here is wether all the billions spent to prevent a few very specific attack vectors will be of any use.
  • by milette ( 744560 ) on Wednesday January 09, 2008 @06:48AM (#21966596) Homepage Journal
    What kind of dolt believe terrorists are running around the USA with shoulder-fired heat-seeking missiles? (Something only the US military is likely to have -- particularly within US soil.)

    Maybe that is a rhetorical question -- obviously the dolts who will be paying for this new and improved scam on the tax-paying public in the name of 'for your convenience and safety against terrorists'...

    Let me ask you something -- shaking in your shoes Americans terrified of your own shadows -- have you not considered that if there actually WERE terrorists -- would they not have done SOMETHING between 9/11 and now?

    Could they not have rented (or stolen) a truck and 20 feet of chain and yanked out a section of railways track to derail a train -- or SOMETHING??? (C'mon -- use your small brains and try to come up with some creative measures to wreak havock -- think of anything yet? ...)

    I currently live in Russia -- a place where trains ARE derailed, and where there ARE terrorists blowing stuff up -- but even a 100-year-old-babooshka in a village somewhere wouldn't be as much of a 'village idiot' as the Americans who are arming the entire country, and giving the government free reign to take away every conceivable element of privacy or security in 'the name' of 'safety' against all these boogiemen behind every 'bush'.

    Follow the freakin money folks and use your freakin heads -- into who's pockets do all these billions flow???

"Well, social relevance is a schtick, like mysteries, social relevance, science fiction..." -- Art Spiegelman