Surface-to-air missile defence – lots of talk, but little action

In the wake of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 being shot down a few weeks ago allegedly by a surface-to-air missile, many words have been written about the need to protect passenger aircraft from such threats.

Some news channels have assembled a mishmash of facts, half-facts and imagination in trying to describe both the threat and any possible solutions.

Firstly, there are no experts who think an airliner can be protected against a surface-to-air missile like the one that may have downed the Malaysian aircraft. Having said that, the more imminent threat is that posed by man-portable air defence systems – also known simply as shoulder-launched missiles.

Intelligence experts say after the Libyan uprising the number of shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of terror groups increased exponentially. One said that “if the number was 50,000, now it has at least doubled”.

While no commercial aircraft can be protected against surface-to-air missiles fired from a dedicated anti-aircraft launcher, there are solutions for the shoulder-launched variety.

Two US legislators on Sunday urged the government to study whether American passenger jets should be equipped with devices protecting them against missiles like that which may have brought down MH17.

Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Steve Israel asked the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Federal Aviation Administration to consider technologies that would shield commercial aircraft.

They say a government study should include specific recommendations on the best technology needed to combat both shoulder-launched and surface-to-air missiles.

Anti-missile devices could include onboard lasers, warning systems, flares and infrared countermeasures, costing from $1-2 million per aircraft, Schumer and Israel say.

However, this clamour will pass, and there is no indication that airlines will stand in line to equip their aircraft with available systems to protect against the lower tier threat – shoulder-launched missiles.

Solutions are available, however, and one is currently being installed on Israeli carriers’ fleets.

This system, Sky Shield, has been developed by Elbit Systems. Sky Shield is a multispectral infrared countermeasure that integrates advanced fibre laser technology with a high-rate thermal camera and a small, dynamic mirror turret to provide effective, reliable and affordable defence.

The initial detection of incoming threats is provided by a missile warning system. When a threat is detected, the warning is passed to the directional infrared countermeasures, that then direct a thermal tracker to acquire and track the threat. A powerful laser is then fired accurately at the missile, causing it to be deflected away from the aircraft.

Putting aside the mix of fact and fiction, the threat is real.

However, will something be done? No.

Another crisis will soon take over the headlines, and nothing real will be done in the many countries with airlines that are potential targets.


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