Why air defenses pose real threats to your flight plans

After 9/11, serious work began on whether defenses needed to be installed on commercial aircrafts

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

The shoot down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine killing 298 people by an air defense weapon re-opens the question of security requirements for commercial aircraft in an increasingly turbulent world.

Although it appears that a Soviet-era “Buk” SA13 system destroyed MH 17, there are many other more handy air defense weapons that threaten air transportation including the “Kub” SA6 system and various assortments of Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). These systems can be found throughout many crisis zones in and around Russia, Central Asia, MENA, and West Africa.

After 9/11, serious work began on whether defenses needed to be installed on commercial aircraft in the event of an air defense weapon being used by non-state actors, specifically MANPADS.

Other considerations include the costs of such systems, their installment and maintenance on each and every aircraft, the rise in the price of fuel for airlines due to the requirement to be re-routed around potential hazard zones, as well as a spike in insurance policies.

With the spread of air defense weapons around the globe, either in the hands of religious fanatics or nationalist fighters or falling into their possession, it is perhaps time to revisit the entire issue.

MANPADS are relatively inexpensive, widely available in the international illegal weapons marketplace, and lethal to aircraft lacking countermeasures below 5000 meters. They offer non-state actors a means of bringing down airliners at any airport and aircraft flying low enough to become a target.

Means and motive

Al-Qaeda affiliates and other extremist groups have MANPADS and the motive and means to use them if they wish. Over 700,000 MANPADS have been produced worldwide since the 1970s. Governments are using buyback programs for MANPADS from Central America to Libya with only very limited success.

Although older MANPADS lose their capabilities over time due to decaying battery packs, there are more recent MANPADS that are highly capable. Russian and British-made variants were recovered from Taliban caves in Afghanistan. SA-7s and other Russian-made models are circulating throughout Africa and the Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. In some of these markets, such systems are sold for as little as $1,000.

Importantly, MANPADS come in four generations and thought to be in the possession of non-state actors. First generation MANPADS are infrared, reticle scan, SA–7s; Second generation MANPADS are infrared, conical scan SA-14s, SA-16, Basic Stingers; and Third generation MANPADS are infrared, pseudo-imaging, SA-18s. The fourth generation is command guided, such as the British Blowpipe.

We should notice right away that the Buk and the Kub are Surface to Air Missile Systems (SAMS) and not MANPADS. There are also other types of MANPADS including the Igla SA-18 Grouse.

On the ground, in order to prevent MANPADS from being launched, security forces need to secure a perimeter around an airport that would prevent an attacker from firing from within range of the MANPADS’ capabilities. The range of a system like the SA-7 can extend out to six kilometers and a maximum altitude of 3000 meters. Newer MANPADS require more preventive measures outside of the normal safety circumference around an airport. But the story doesn’t end here.

The urban sprawl around today’s airports with related infrastructure and in more cases than not next to a body of water gives non-state actors ample opportunity to engage a civilian jetliner. Security forces need to canvas a wide area in order to deny opportunity.

In the air, countermeasures against MANPADS, which may be able to confuse SAMS, are flares, laser jammers and high-energy lasers, or HELs. Simply put, flares and laser jammers attempt to confuse the infrared seeker of an infrared MANPAD warhead, while HEL destroys the MANPAD warhead regardless of how the projectile is guided. While military aircraft carry an array of flares, laser jammers, and decoys, civilian aircraft are clearly not equipped in such a manner. Perhaps they should be.

Costs are an issue in protecting commercial airlines from MANPADS attack. Outlays include the added fuel cost for commercial aircraft plus maintenance, airline mechanic labor and spares, as well as technology upgrades.

Indirect harm

The indirect economic harm would be far greater for the general public who lose trust in the airline system as well as operating damages for airlines.

In the wake of the MH attack by a SAMS, civilian air traffic was forced to move around Ukraine. Some airlines stopped flying to Kiev altogether.

The data is not yet available for such a change on airline expenditures but when taken together with other zones of instability around, for example, North Africa and the Levant, costs are certain to rise. Flights are already avoiding Syria tacking on additional flight time on particular Levantine regional routes. Most certainly, Malaysian Airlines is likely to put into bankruptcy.

Quite simply, the larger the areas of instability, the higher the costs are to the aviation industry. In 2010, the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull created air travel chaos across Europe resulting in the loss of $1.7 billion and affected millions of people. What will the economic impact be of man-made attacks, whether accidental or on purpose, by non-state actors using MANPADS or SAMS?

This question is important for policymakers and stakeholders to think about. We know that airports are major targets as witnessed by the recent attacks in Karachi, Kabul, and Tripoli so it is only logical that unprotected civilian airborne targets may be next.

Clearly, it seems that the implications of a successful MANPADS or SAMS attack that planning is required now for determining how air routes and air space would be affected by instability, including alternative air routes and the costs associated with them.

This entails holding high-level expert conferences and starting negotiations with other countries and aviation companies above and beyond current coordinating mechanisms. At the same time, technologies offer potential remedies to protecting the flying public and there is a vital need to think about how best to equip commercial aviation with the appropriate countermeasures. At this juncture, prevention seems to be the best remedy.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is the Director of Research and Consultancy at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA) in Dubai, UAE. He is also a Lecturer at University of Wollongong Dubai. Dr. Karasik received his Ph.D in History from the University of California Los Angles.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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