Airports get
missile warning

Officials believe that the threat to U.S.
airliners is greater overseas

Star-Bulletin news services

WASHINGTON >> The government warned airports yesterday that portable rocket launchers could be used against airliners in the United States, even though security officials believe the risk of another attempt like the one against an Israeli jet in Kenya is greater overseas.

The possibility of a missile attack is a major concern for commercial airlines operating abroad, especially in Asia and Africa, said Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International Inc., a Houston-based aviation security firm that does government consulting work.

In the United States, he said, an attack is more likely to be thwarted by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Still, many terrorist groups have access to the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, with thousands circulating worldwide. Their small size and 3-mile range could make such missiles ideal weapons for terrorists targeting U.S. airliners.

Two missiles that narrowly missed the Israeli aircraft were fired from a four-wheel-drive vehicle one mile from the airport, witnesses told police. Investigators there discovered launch tubes from an SA-7, a heat-seeking missile designed 30 years ago that can hit low-flying aircraft within about three miles.

In the spring, suspected al-Qaida operatives used an SA-7 to try to shoot an American plane taking off from Prince Sultan Air Base, south of the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

The miss Thursday stoked one of the worst fears of terrorism specialists: It is almost impossible to protect lumbering civilian jetliners from such weapons without extremely costly new technology.

Warnings aside, specialists said that any effort to defend the industry against the shoulder-fired missiles could run into the tens of billions of dollars and would rely on technology that so far remains in the hands of the military and a privileged few others.

"It's regarded by many of us in the security field as only a matter of time," said David Forbes, president of BoydForbes Inc., an aviation security firm in Evergreen, Colo. "This is an example where the pace of development with regard to the innovation of terrorism is ahead of our ability to respond to it."

Some aviation specialists speculate that the Israeli plane employed a device enabling it to divert such missiles in flight. That technology is widely believed to be employed only on Israeli aircraft among the world's civilian airliners.

Specialists say shoulder-fired aircraft have downed dozens of civilian aircraft, claiming hundreds of lives over the years.

The threat, in part, has prompted U.S. officials to pay as much as $150,000 in the past year to buy up the Stinger anti-aircraft missiles still in Afghanistan. According to some estimates, 50 to 100 still remain.

Despite the threat, aviation officials say, the possible countermeasures are few and not widely distributed. Militaries around the world rely on flares, heat-seeking balloons and fine particles to throw off the missiles. Cutting-edge laser systems are limited to the military and planes like Air Force One.

Billie Vincent, former head of security at the Federal Aviation Administration, said equipping the much-bigger U.S. fleet could cost billions of dollars.

"Anything's possible, but it would certainly be an enormous, enormous cost," he said.

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