At last, there's a bit of good news about the shoulder-fired missiles that terrorists have found so irresistable. After years of taking its sweet time, the Department of Homeland Security yesterday handed out a pair of contracts to design and test a prototype missile defense for passenger planes.BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman will each get about $45 million, to spend over the next 18 months, so they can get their systems ready to shoulder-fired threat. Both companies will likely use some variation of the "Directed InfraRed CounterMeasure," or DIRCM, which uses beams of light to jams missile guidance systems.Despite the contracts, the Homeland Security Department still sounds less-than-thrilled about the infrared solution, however.
Current DIRCMs cannot be easily adapted to the U.S. commercial air fleet, and must be re-engineered. The current available DIRCMs have roughly 300 hours of life before they must be repaired or refurbished. While suitable for the military or special purpose aircraft, given their maintenance and logistical infrastructure, this is not suitable for U.S. commercial air fleet use. 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 significant. Estimates put this cost at as much as $5 billion to $10 billion per year prior to the re-engineering efforts of this program.Never mind that Israel is putting a similar system in place, Tom Ridge's people say. "El Al Airlines is able to use these technologies because they fly out of one airport where their maintenance personnel can all be centrally located. In the U.S., with more than 400 airports and more than 6,000 aircraft in the commercial fleet, the maintenance cost of [such] technology at current system costs would be staggering."