Monday, January 24, 2005

The Threat to Civil Aviation

Tomorrow the RAND Corporation will release a study that finds that although shoulder-fired missiles pose a serious threat to civil aviation in the United States, available counter-measures are prohibitively expensive. The study states, "Al Qaeda and its affiliates have both the motive and the means to bring down U.S. commercial aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles." Nonetheless, the $11 billion that RAND researchers believe would be necessary to equip civilian airliners with existing defenses against such missiles is almost three times what is currently being spent on transportation security by the government.

Last November, American intelligence officials revealed that there are an estimated 6,000 light anti-aircraft missiles in circulation outside the control of governments. Some of these are leftover Stinger missiles supplied by the United States to the mujahidin during the Afghan War of the 1980s. Steve Coll, in Ghost Wars, describes the CIA's failed effort to buy back unused Stingers shortly after the Taliban captured Kabul. Today, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are thought to sell for approximately $5,000 on the black market.

As the Los Angeles Times noted back in December, LAX and other urban airports are virtually impossible to secure against the threat given the range of newer shoulder-fired missiles and the population density of the areas surrounding urban airports. The Department of Homeland Security has been looking at various means to address the threat, but progress has reportedly been slow. In fact, the Air Force initiated a secret program early in 2004 to develop defenses for civilian airliners because of its frustration with the pace of DHS efforts.