Policy Analysis No. 541

Flying the Unfriendly Skies: Defending against the Threat of Shoulder-Fired Missiles

By Charles V. Peña
April 19, 2005

Executive Summary

Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, or MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), have proliferated throughout the world. They can be purchased on the military arms black market for as little as $5,000. More than two dozen terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, are believed to possess such weapons. The FBI estimates that there have been 29 MANPADS attacks against civilian aircraft resulting in 550 deaths. At least 25 of the reported attacks have been attributed to non state actors.

Even though a U.S. airliner has not been attacked by a missile, the question well may be when, not if, such an attack will happen. Therefore, the federal government should act now to provide protection for civilian aircraft instead of waiting to respond to an attack. The need to act beforehand is particularly acute because, although the human death toll would likely be less than on September 11, 2001, the economic consequences of an attack could be enormous. According to one estimate, the total economic loss resulting from an attack could be as high as $70 billion.

After 9/11 the public could eventually be coaxed back into flying by assurances that the government and airlines were taking security precautions to prevent more hijackings. But if even a single airliner is shot down by a missile, public confidence will not be easily restored. The harsh reality is that ground security to defend against MANPADS is nearly impossible.

The U.S. government should take advantage of available technology currently used on military aircraft to protect the U.S. commercial aircraft fleet. The cost to outfit all 6,800 U.S. commercial aircraft with advanced laser-jamming infrared countermeasures against MANPADS is estimated at $11 billion plus $2.1 billion in recurring annual operating costs. In 2004 Citizens Against Government Waste documented a total of $22.9 billion in federal pork-barrel spending—more than twice what’s needed to procure the countermeasures against shoulder-fired missile attacks. Canceling the Air Force’s F-22, the Navy’s F/A-18E/F, the Marine Corps’ V-22, and the Navy’s Virginia-class submarine would yield savings of $170 billion in future program costs. The president’s proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2006 is $2.6 trillion. Certainly, the U.S. government can find needless spending equal to less than one-half of 1 percent of its budget to help fulfill its primary responsibility of providing for the common defense.

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