© 2007 REVIEW-JOURNAL
Defense planners for years have feared that a terrorist could take cover near an airport and fire a shoulder-launched missile at a departing or incoming flight, causing mass casualties and crippling the U.S. airline industry.
Now, homeland security officials have listed Las Vegas as one of six cities with "airports of interest" for studying how a "Star Wars" weapons system could be used by unmanned spy planes to thwart such attacks on jetliners.
The idea is to zap the heat-seeking missiles with a directed-energy weapon such as a high-powered laser or microwave system, or throw them off-course with low-energy lasers carried by aircraft like a modified, unmanned Predator, said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a military information Web site.
A low-powered laser shining in the path of a missile would fool its sensors and divert it from the target, he explained in a telephone interview last week about what Homeland Security officials have dubbed Project Chloe, named after a character in the television program, "24."
Not out of the realm of possible countermeasures, he said, is to use a missile fired from a drone like the Predator to intercept a shoulder-launched missile.
The risk of wayward interceptor missiles striking people, homes and businesses would have to be weighed against the prospect of a terrorist toting an infrared, heat-seeking Stinger missile that could knock a passenger jet from the sky over the same urban area, Pike said.
"There are many ways of doing it, but that's what they're going to be studying," he said about the Project Chloe countermeasure analysis.
"I think the thing that is intriguing about it is that they recognize that aircraft are vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles when they are close to airports but not otherwise," Pike said. "The problem is not defending airplanes. The problem is defending airplanes taking off or landing at airports."
Final proposals for the project are due Friday, with selections for contractors on June 29 and contracts awarded Aug. 17.
The Department of Homeland Security's Science and Technology Directorate expects to award at least one contract for the project, with about $11 million likely to be available for an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, manufacturer.
Front-runners include General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., producer of remotely piloted Predator spy planes, including the MQ-1 Predator, and its faster, higher-flying big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper.
Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said, "Our aircraft may be used (for Project Chloe), but we as a company are not getting directly involved in this."
The Reaper was described as "a Predator on steroids," by Lt. Col. Jonathan Greene, commander of the 42nd Attack Squadron, when the squadron was activated in November at Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The Department of Homeland Security already has one Reaper it uses for border patrol in Arizona. It can reach an altitude of 50,000 feet while not armed with bombs or missiles, and can loiter over an area for 24 hours.
Another candidate company is Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which at more than 450 mph is the fastest flying UAV and can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet.
Jim Hart, Northrop Grumman's spokesman in El Segundo, Calif., said his company "definitely has responded" to the call for Project Chloe proposals. "That's all I can say," he said Thursday.
Another possible candidate is Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., pioneering architect of the nation's Stealth aircraft out of Palmdale, Calif.
"We are very much aware of Project Chloe and ... are interested in the opportunity, and are evaluating all our options at this point. I'm sorry I can't be more specific due to the ongoing competition," Lockheed spokesman Craig Quigley said in an e-mail Friday.
AIRPORTS OF INTEREST
An unmanned plane's warning indicators could pick up the ultraviolet plume from a missile's rocket booster and trigger an anti-missile laser, which could be shot from the drone or from a site on the...
Even though the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is putting millions of dollars into the development of on-board missile-defense systems for the nation's domestic fleet of passenger planes, it...
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is launching an 18-month program evaluating technologies to protect commercial fleets.
The defense system is being designed and tested by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman.