The threat to civil aviation from small shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) has long been a source of concern. (I commented on it here in November 2004.) At Los Angeles International Airport today, Northrop Grumman unveiled a defensive system called "Guardian" that critics contend is too expensive to be affordable to the struggling airline industry and wrong-headed in its approach.
The system, mounted on a FedEx MD-10 cargo plane for an eighteen-month trial, employs directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) designed to disable the tracking mechanisms of anti-aircraft missiles. Originally developed for the military, the technology has been adapted by Northrop Grumman for use on commercial airplanes.
In addition to the cost of deploying the system (roughly $11 billion across the industry according to a study conducted by Rand in 2005), critics argue that Guardian represents a deviation from what ought to be the primary focus on surveillance. John Meenan, the executive director of the Air Transport Association, put it this way: "Isn't a surveillance program around airports better? Shouldn't we be doing more to go after the archer rather than trying to catch the arrows?" Meenan noted that there are other threats to commercial aviation such as rocket-propelled grenades that would not be addressed by the Guardian system.
The U.S. military currently uses a system called "Nemesis," based on the same technology as the Guardian system, on a variety of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.