Laser Defences for Civil Airliners Become Cheaper

ABOUT 6,000 shoulder-fired missiles are believed to have fallen into terrorist hands but the cost of equipping the world's commercial fleet with military-style laser anti-missile defences has been put at $10bn (GBP560m, E820m). The cost of maintaining the kit is estimated even higher - up to $2.1bn a year, according to Rand, the research firm. Now BAE Systems, one of two companies developing experimental laser technology - known as Dircam - for the US to protect aircraft, believes it has succeeded in putting the programme on a commercial footing just as it moves into the flight test phase. There have been grave concerns about potential missile attacks on commercial aircraft since terrorists narrowly missed an Israeli aircraft in Kenya in 2002 and damaged a DHL Airlines aircraft near Baghdad airport in 2003. Rand believes that Al-Qaeda has portable shoulder-fired missiles, known as Manpads, and would "relish" firing them at US passenger planes.

Last year, the US Department of Homeland Security awarded contracts to BAE Systems and America's Northrop Grumman to test their laser-based systems on jetliners. The systems would interfere with or jam signals of a heat-seeking missile, sending it off course.

Flight tests with the jammers on board are due to start in mid-September. FAA certification at the end of the year will depend on the equipment being non-invasive to aircraft and having the ability to perform. Results are expected to be submitted to Congress next year. BAE admits the biggest headache has been the potential maintenance costs. Steve duMont, the programme's business development manager says his team are making strides in reducing them. The company initially envisaged housing the laser in a pod bolted on to the aircraft but it found the protrusion was too much of a drag on commercial aircraft.

More drag means either more fuel or fewer passengers. Northrop Grumman is sticking with its pod design. Congress has yet to decide on funding for phase three of the programme. The US federal government spends only about $4.4bn a year on all transport security.

Whatever the Dircam technology ends up costing, it will be money well spent. The loss of just one commercial jetliner to a shoulder-fired missile would be significant; the cost of the aircraft and legal settlements if many people died is estimated by Rand at $1bn.

If travellers were then reluctant to fly, the cost could balloon to $15bn in the months after an attack.