One Congressman's Quest to Protect Jetliners from Missiles

The shoot down of MA 17 could inspire copycat terrorism, says Rep. Steve Israel.

July 28, 2014, 12:33 PM

— -- Rep. Steve Israel wants all new U.S. commercial airliners to include some kind of missile defense systems to protect against a terror attack.

The New York Democrat has renewed a push for the legislation after a missile allegedly blew Malaysia Airlines flight 17 out of the sky over Ukraine and a Hamas rocket landed near Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“Terrorists are copycats, and I’m concerned that [when] they see these tactics, they’re going to try and employ them,” Israel told ABC News. “We know that there are thousands of shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of terrorists around the world. They’re going to use these things and we are still leaving our public undefended.”

So Israel is on a mission to put missile defense technology on U.S. commercial airplanes.

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The congressman says he plans to introduce a bill expanding missile protection for passenger planes, likely one that would require all newly built commercial aircraft include defensive technology. He and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-NY, have also asked the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Department, and the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct an interagency study on the issue.

Israel made a similar proposal after a 2002 missile attack on an Israeli charter plane flying over Mombasa, Kenya. That bill would have required the Defense Department to pay for missile defense technology on all existing U.S. commercial passenger planes, but the multi-billion dollar price tag concerned many lawmakers and the bill was never enacted.

PHOTO: Nicaraguan soldiers carry SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles during a parade in Managua in 2003.
Nicaraguan soldiers carry SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles during a parade in Managua in 2003.
Miguel Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

What worries Israel are that shoulder-fired weapons known as MANPADS are portable and easily concealed. And the more primitive versions, though not particularly accurate, are simple to operate and widely available on the black market.

A MANPAD could take out a civilian plane during takeoff or landing. According to Israel, even if the missile missed, a single attempt could “grind U.S. aviation to a halt,” causing a billion dollar-plus hit to the economy.

Israel's El Al airline is reported to have anti-missile systems.

The FAA says it’s not considering requiring domestic carriers to install missile defense systems on planes.

“If you’re flying on an El Al aircraft, you’re defended, Air Force One is defended, many military aircraft, defended. But no commercial plane in the United States fleet is defended. And that’s just wrong,” he said.

Using the defense systems would likely involve sudden in-flight maneuvers that commercial aircraft aren’t designed to handle, which could endanger passengers. And commercial pilots aren’t necessarily trained on the equipment. Airlines have also balked at the cost.

Israel calls the objections “irresponsible.”

“We have a tendency in this country when it comes to homeland security to witness a horrific attack and then the next day, say, ‘why didn’t we?’” he said. “I think it’s irresponsible for the FAA simply to say, ‘well, we’re not going to even look at this.”

He also dismisses the cost argument.

“The pushback that I’ve received from the airline industry is that the cost … is about $1 million per plane. That is true. The cost of an inflight entertainment system is $1 million per plane,” he points out.

“What is safer: being able to watch television at 30,000 feet or knowing that when you take off and land, you’re protected?” Israel says.

Some experts suggest that patrolling airport perimeters could help thwart potential attackers, who are most likely to target planes during takeoff and landing.

PHOTO: An American Airlines Boeing 737 airplane takes off from a runway at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Sept. 23, 2013.
An American Airlines Boeing 737 airplane takes off from a runway at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, Sept. 23, 2013.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

But that, too, can be expensive, as effective policing would require monitoring perimeters hundreds of miles deep. (The U.S. can’t regulate patrols at foreign airports.)

“You can’t necessarily fortify the airports, but you can fortify the plane,” Israel said, adding that learning to operate the defense systems is “not that difficult.”

“A very important defense against terrorists is deterrents... If [terrorists] knew that these planes had technologies to protect against a shoulder fired missile, they may be less likely to even try that,” the congressman said. “We should use all the tools in our toolbox – deterrents, actual protection, defense – in order to dissuade, deter, and stop them from engaging in this kind of an attack.”

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