Airliner Anti-Missile Systems Too Expensive and Unreliable

For Release

January 25, 2005

It is currently not cost-effective to spend billions of dollars equipping America’s 6,800 commercial airliners with systems to guard against attacks from shoulder-fired missiles, but the investment could be justified later if anti-missile systems are made more economical and reliable, according to a RAND Corporation study issued today.

Installing such systems on the nation’s fleet of commercial airlines would cost an estimated $11 billion, with operating costs ramping up to $2.1 billion annually upon full operational capability, according to the RAND report. Over 20 years, the cost to develop, procure, and operate these systems would amount to an estimated $40 billion.

By way of comparison, the federal government currently spends about $4.4 billion annually on all transportation security.

“If we decide as a nation to significantly increase spending on homeland security, then spending this much on anti-missile systems may be appropriate,” said James Chow, a RAND engineer who headed the project. “But given what we spend today, a large investment in technology still unproven in commercial airlines doesn’t appear appropriate.”

“Resources available for homeland security are limited, so we must strive to get the most benefit from our investments,” said Michael Wermuth, director of RAND’s homeland security program. “There may well be other strategy alternatives that could prove to be less expensive and considerably more effective.”

Laser systems designed to thwart shoulder-fired missile attacks have been used on military aircraft for some time, and some government officials and others have called for them to be installed on the nation’s commercial airline fleet. But RAND researchers found there are still many unresolved questions about how the systems would operate on commercial airlines, including issues such as the number of false alarms that may occur and whether terrorists could find ways to circumvent the safeguards.

While developers of the laser systems work to refine and demonstrate the technology, other approaches should be adopted to guard against missile attacks, according to the report, titled “Protecting Commercial Aviation Against the Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat.”

These approaches include expanding efforts to keep missiles out of terrorists’ hands, improving security around the perimeter of airports and improving commercial airliners’ ability to survive a missile strike, according to the report.

Aviation experts have been worried for many years about the possibility that terrorists may attack a domestic airliner with shoulder-fired missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS.

More than 700,000 of the missiles have been produced worldwide by a number of nations. Many thousands of the weapons are unaccounted for worldwide, including some U.S.-made missiles sent to Afghanistan to assist the mujahedin who battled against the occupation by the Soviet Union.

Concerns about possible attacks with MANPADS in the United States heightened after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and an unsuccessful attack by terrorists with MANPADS against an Israeli airliner at an airport in Kenya in November 2002.

Chow and his RAND colleagues examined the types of anti-missile systems that soon will be available or are in development, estimating the cost of installing and operating such equipment. They also examined how those expenses compare to the cost of other homeland security efforts.

The most-promising near-term solutions to MANPAD attacks are laser jammers, which soon will be commercially available. They are designed to disrupt a MANPADS’ guidance system, causing a missile to miss its target.

Researchers acknowledge that a successful MANPAD attack might kill hundreds of people and create economic losses that could rise above $15 billion. In addition, such an attack would create a feeling of lost security among the nation’s population—something that cannot be economically quantified, researchers said.

But given the enormous cost of installing anti-missile systems compared with other homeland security measures, researchers suggest that officials explore less costly approaches in the near term while launching efforts to improve and demonstrate the reliability of the systems.

The project was supported with funds RAND has available to pursue discretionary research projects. Other authors of the report are James Chiesa, Paul Dreyer, Melvin Eisman, Theodore Karasik, Joel Kvitky, Sherrill Lingel, David Ochmanek, and Chad Shirley.

The RAND Infrastructure, Safety, and Environment division conducts research and analysis to improve the development, operation, use and protection of society’s essential man-made and natural assets, and to enhance the safety and security of individuals in transit, at work and in their communities.

Printed copies of “Protecting Commercial Aviation Against the Shoulder-Fired Missile Threat,” (ISBN: 0-8330-3718-8) can be ordered from RAND’s Distribution Services ( or call toll-free in the United States 1-877-584-8642).

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