Commentary

Surface-to-Air Missile Defense

By Charles V. Peña
February 6, 2005

A study released by the RAND Corporation acknowledged that shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles – also known as man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) – are a terrorist threat to civilian jetliners, but concluded that spending $11 billion (plus annual operating costs of $2.1 billion) to outfit the commercial airline fleet with defensive countermeasures was too expensive.

To be sure, $11 billion is a lot of money. But it’s less than one-half of one percent of the $2.4 trillion federal budget for fiscal year 2005 and less than 3 percent of the Defense Department’s $400-plus billion budget. Surely there must be a way to find a spare $11 billion to address a crucial security need.

In the more than three years since the 9/11 attacks, the United States has spent considerable resources to increase airport security to prevent future hijackings. But instead of trying to hijack airplanes, what if al Qaeda or some other terrorist menace decides that it’s easier to shoot down airplanes and kill the passengers?

Remember, militants who were widely believed to be members of al Qaeda tried to shoot down an Israeli plane in Kenya in November of 2002, using hand-held surface-to-air missiles. They only narrowly missed.

If one of these missiles connected, the human death toll would be considerably less than on 9/11, but the economic impact would not be slight. RAND estimated that a single successful missile attack against a commercial airliner could inflict economic losses from $1.4 billion, if there was a total shutdown of airline traffic for just one day, to $70.7 billion if the shutdown stretched out to a month.

Commercial air travel was stopped completely for a few days and was severely disrupted for at least a week after 9/11, but the flying public was coaxed back into flying by assurances that the government and the airlines were taking precautions to prevent more hijackings. If a single airliner is shot down by a missile, public confidence is not likely to be restored by more passenger searches and a larger presence of law enforcement at airports.

The scary reality is that ground security to defend against MANPADS is nearly impossible. These relatively light and portable systems have a range of several miles which would require policing an area of several hundred square miles around many airports.

MANPADS are a known clear and present danger. At least 500,000 such systems have been produced worldwide. And at least 17 terrorist organizations (including al Qaeda) are believed to possess Soviet SA-7 missiles – the same missile that was used in Kenya in November 2002. And it’s not just the SA-7 that’s a concern. The American Stinger missile (supplied to the mujahadeen in Afghanistan to down Soviet Hind helicopters) is also thought to be in the hands of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

There is also a well-documented history of using MANPADS against civilian aircraft. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization, since the 1970s, at least 42 aircraft have been attacked by MANPADS. Twenty-nine of them went down. According to the FBI, 550 people were killed as a result of those attacks.

If $11 billion will diminish this threat, it’s $11 billion well spent. Here’s one way to find more than enough money to install and operate the countermeasures for their projected 10-year life cycle: Cancel the Air Force’s F-22, the Marine Corps V-22, and the Navy’s Virginia-class submarine. Total savings: more than $160 billion in future program costs.

The F-22 was originally designed for air superiority against Soviet tactical fighters that were never built, and the U.S. Air Force does not have an adversary that can seriously challenge it for air superiority. The V-22’s tilt-rotor technology is still unproven and inherently more dangerous than helicopters that can perform the same missions at a fraction of the cost. The Virginia-class submarine was designed to counter a Soviet nuclear submarine threat that no longer exists.

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, in 2004, congressional appropriators stuck 10,656 projects in 13 appropriations bills for a total of $22.9 billion in pork barrel spending — more than twice what’s needed to procure the countermeasures cited in the RAND report. The point is: The money is there, if the government takes the treat seriously.

The paramount responsibility of the federal government is to provide for the common defense. In the post-9/11 world, that means defending against terrorist attacks. While it’s impossible to defend against every potential line of attack, the government would be shirking its duty if it couldn’t find $11 billion to protect commercial airliners against such a serious threat.

Charles V. Peña is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.