Airliners and the missile threat
By Joe Havely
(CNN) -- The danger posed to commercial aircraft from shoulder-launched missiles was highlighted in November 2002 when terrorists tried to shoot down an Israeli plane taking holiday-makers from Mombassa airport, Kenya.
But the danger has been there as long as the missiles have been in existence.
What has been missing, until recently, has been the human element -- the funding, the suppliers and the willingness to carry out such an attack.
At their cruising altitude, modern commercial jets are well beyond the range of all but the larger anti-aircraft missiles.
But they are vulnerable on takeoff or landing when they are flying slowly and at a low altitude.
Laden with highly explosive jet fuel, a modern jetliner presents a big target for a suitably armed terrorist who could launch a missile from several kilometers outside the airport perimeter.
The missiles can fit in a golf bag and be carried around easily.
Russian-designed missiles like the SA-7 and SA-18 have been manufactured in large numbers with copy versions built in countries like Bulgaria, China and North Korea.
But it is not just weaponry from the former eastern bloc, available on the black market, that could end up in the hands of terrorists.
During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the CIA supplied the Mujahideen with hundreds of American-made Stinger missiles, many of which remain in circulation.
Cheap, easy to use and portable, the Stingers targeted Soviet aircraft. Now they could be fired at U.S. planes.
The first line of defense, intelligence experts say, is to stop the weapons falling into terrorist hands.
Intensified security and monitoring of flight paths in and out of airports has also become a top priority.
But considering the range of these missiles, attention is also being focused on how aircraft can defend themselves.
Most shoulder-launched, surface-to-air type missiles use an infrared or other heat-seeking targeting system designed to direct the missile to the aircraft's engine exhaust.
Jetfighters and other military aircraft are equipped with defenses like flares and radar-jamming chaff designed to confuse and deflect an incoming missile.
These automatically detect the launch and approach of a threatening missile and react with little or no human intervention.
Aviation experts say developing and deploying such devices on commercial airliners would cost more than $2 million for each aircraft.
The cost would have to be passed on to passengers and airlines say that is not commercially viable.
But such systems do exist, including BAE Systems' MATADOR AN/ALQ-204 which have infrared deflectors fitted beside the aircraft's engines.
The company says the MATADOR system has been installed on several executive Gulfstream jets and is used to protect a number of heads of state.