House Bill Would Push Airline Missile Defense

Times Staff Writer

House members concerned that U.S. planes could be the target of shoulder-fired missile attacks introduced legislation Tuesday to expedite research and development of defense systems for commercial aircraft.

The bill also calls for stronger diplomatic efforts urging foreign governments to buy back or otherwise account for more than 500,000 portable missiles worldwide. Terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, are believed to possess more than 1,000 missiles, said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

“We have to go on offense and defense at the same time to protect ourselves,” Israel said. “We’ve got to accelerate our efforts to equip all American aircraft with the electronic countermeasures that they need.”

More than 5,500 shoulder-launched missiles were confiscated in military sweeps through Afghanistan against Taliban and Al Qaeda forces, U.S. officials have said. In 2002, an Israeli passenger jet dodged a pair of surface-to-air missiles over Kenya. Attacks on U.S. military and cargo planes in Iraq also have been reported.


The bill supports efforts begun by the Transportation Security Administration, which has asked three companies -- Northrop Grumman, BAE Systems and United Airlines -- to come up with plans for antimissile systems. It orders the Federal Aviation Administration to bypass its usual years-long approval process and instead quickly test and certify new protective technology.

The FAA will not test the effectiveness of the system, a spokesman said, but will determine whether its electronic components interfere with the operation of aircraft.

Calling the prospect of a missile attack on a passenger or cargo plane “one of the most serious threats our nation faces,” Rep. John L. Mica (R-Fla.), the chairman of the House Transportation subcommittee on aviation and the primary sponsor of the bill, said the antimissile system should be complete in 18 months.

Installing defense systems in the nation’s 6,800 commercial aircraft is expected to cost almost $10 billion, Israel said. It has not been decided whether the government or the airline industry would bear the cost.


A spokesman for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who supports increased efforts to protect U.S. commercial aircraft against missile attacks, said she had worked earlier this month to bolster the State Department budget by $10 million to buy back shoulder-launched missiles.

“Experts are telling us this is a real threat,” spokesman David Sandretti said. “This is fast becoming a bipartisan, bicameral effort.”