Taking Terror Threat Out of Flying

A new laser defense system would protect against surface-to-air missiles.

March 26, 2008— -- A laser defense system designed to protect airliners from the threat of surface-to-air missiles, is ready to be deployed on commercial jets, Northrop Grumman announced today.

Terrorist organizations have let it be known that they would use their shoulder-launched surface-to-air-missiles, otherwise known as man portable air defense systems (MAN PADS), to attack commercial aircraft.

To counter these threats, the Department of Homeland Security asked if current military technology could also protect our commercial jets.

Northrop Grumman announced today that it has completed a 14-month test of a commercial anti-missile system — the Guardian System — and it's ready to be deployed.

FedEx provided 11 commercial planes and Northwest Airlines gave operational and maintenance help for 23,000 hours of operating time, crossing the country to 51 airports.

The technology is contained in a seven-foot canoe-shaped "pod," weighing 500 pounds, attached to the belly of the plane, with "eyes" that can scan 360 degrees at all times and a turret housing a laser that disables the missile, according to Northrop Grumman.

According to Jack Pledger, director of business development for Northrop Grumman, the eyes on the pod "continually stare. They never blink.

"When they see a missile, they turn the turret toward the missile, lock on to the missile and track it," he said. "When they determine it really is a missile, they activate an eye-safe laser and jam the guidance system of the missile, turning it away from the airplane."

The Guardian System pod is self-contained and does not require any action on the part of the flight crew to engage.

"It happens in two to three seconds, and it happens so quickly," Pledger said. "Because these missiles fly at over twice the speed of sound, and can be fired fairly close to the airplane, there really is no time for a human to get involved. So, everything has to be automatic, everything the system needs to detect the missile, to track and jam it is located in the pod and it is all done autonomously."

Each pod would cost less than $1 million. As he introduced the project, James F. Pitts, president , Electronic Systems, Northrop Grumman, said each pod would be amortized over a 20-year life cycle.

"This adds $1 per person per seat on an airplane in order to fly a system like this over its lifetime," Pitt said.

"You can purchase these systems, modify the airplanes to carry them, install them on the airplanes, operate and maintain them for 20 years, and then pay for the disposal of the system at the end of the 20-year life cycle for less than a dollar a passenger on those flights," he said.

"That's about the equivalent of a can of soda and bag of assorted nuts and snacks they give you on the airplane," Pitt added.

With the test phase complete, the Department of Homeland Security will have to decide this summer what security measure it wants to implement for commercial aircraft.

Department of Defense officials will also have to decide if they want to install this technology on the civilian reserve air fleet that ferries U.S. troops overseas.

An airplane is vulnerable within a 300 square-mile area from the runway. MAN PADS can be used to hit a plane in the 10,000-foot to 15,000-foot altitude range as they depart and approach air fields.

In the last month, El Al, the Israeli commercial airliner, announced it would arm its planes going to Asia and Africa with laser-based defense technology.