$100 million later, are commercial aircraft any safer from terrorist strikes?

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has spent more than $100 million looking into ways to prevent passenger planes from being hit by shoulder-fired, laser-guided missiles like the US-made Stinger, first supplied by the Americans to the Afghan Mujahideen in the early '80s to help them fight the Soviets.

The US State Department says that around 40 commercial aircraft have come under attack from portable air defence systems like Stinger missiles since the '70s, at a cost of about 400 lives.

Defence manufacturer Northrop Grumman has carried out 6,000 hours of tests on a directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) system, named 'Guardian'. DIRCM works by detecting the attack, then directing an invisible laser at the homing device of the incoming missile, thereby disrupting its guidance signals and throwing it off target.

The testing was done mostly on FedEx MD-10 and MD-11 cargo jets, using an electronic missile surrogate to create a mock up of a SAM launch at an aircraft during takeoff or landing. 'Guardian' automatically detected the simulated launch and mock missile, fulfilling mission objectives.

The DHS has reported to Congress that the per-flight cost of such a defence system will be around $365 per flight, which is $65 more than what it is willing to spend. That comes to just 70 cents per passenger per flight. But the report seems to hide more than it reveals. The unit that will have to be installed on each plane will cost around $1 million!

The aviation industry is openly sceptical. Airline executives contend that a passenger plane could as effectively be shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) or a medium machine gun (MMG). They say that the DHS should catch the archer, rather than pay out top dollar trying to blunt the arrows he shoots.