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Contractor tests missile defense tech for civilian airliners

Northrop Grumman Corp. has completed testing and production of the first onboard infrared system to protect civilian airliners from shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Northrop's Guardian System, along with a parallel program still in the works by BAE Systems of Rockville, Md., could provide aircraft with needed protection from a cheap and easy-to-acquire weapon that is popular with terrorists.

Similar missile defense systems already are utilized by 400 U.S. and allied military planes across the globe, including in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We are saving lives every day with this type of technology," said Jack Pledger, director of business development at Northrop's defensive system division during a media briefing on Wednesday at Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport.

The Homeland Security Department began its counter-MANPADS (man-portable air defense system) program in the fall of 2003, shortly after two shoulder-fired missiles narrowly missed an Arkia Israeli Airlines flight taking off from Mombasa, Kenya.

The agency hired Northrop Grumman, based in Arlington, Va., and BAE Systems to convert the existing anti-missile military technology for use on civilian aircrafts. The five-year contract was worth $105 million for each firm.

The Guardian System is a tear-shaped, 500-pound device that attaches to the bottom of an aircraft. The pod is equipped with four rotating missile warning sensors that operate on a complicated algorithm to determine threat levels. In the event of an attack, the system would send a small but powerful laser to jam a heat-seeking missile and disrupt the weapon's guidance.

"This all happens within two to three seconds," said Pledger. "There is no time for a human to get involved. It's all done autonomously."

The contractor built a dozen Guardian systems and tested them on 11 FedEx MD-10 planes. The evaluation program was conducted during the past 14 months at 51 airports across the continental United States.

The pod can be easily installed or detached -- a media demonstration took less than 10 minutes -- and can fit civilian aircraft of all sizes.

BAE has yet to unveil its laser-based infrared system, known as JETEYE.

The company is nearing completion of the third phase of the project, which includes testing the system on an American Airlines plane during a cross-country trip from New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport in May or June, said BAE spokeswoman Marianne Murphy. The firm expects to complete the program by the end of the year.

Northrop and BAE indicated they would easily meet DHS' requirement that the counter-MANPADS systems cost no more than $1 million per unit, although specific prices would depend on the volume ordered.

But questions persist about who will purchase this technology and pay to install and maintain it.

The airline industry, bludgeoned by skyrocketing fuel costs and a hemorrhaging market because of the declining economy, has not indicated a willingness to pay for the anti-missile systems. Congress, meanwhile, has not appropriated any funding beyond the initial counter-MANPADS program to mass produce the technology.

James Pitts, president and corporate vice president of Northrop's Electronic Systems, said the units would cost only $1 per passenger on each commercial flight for the lifespan of the device -- less than the price of some onboard entertainment systems.

There are about 4,000 commercial airliners in service at any given time across the country, Pledger said. But equipping the country's entire commercial fleet would likely require significantly fewer units, he added, since the counter-MANPADS devices can be interchanged from one plane to another.

More pressing, Pledger said, is to install the devices on commercial planes that fly overseas to dangerous locations that do not maintain vigilant air defense systems.

DHS also is conducting a suitability study on several missile defense systems that would not be mounted on planes.

Northrop is working on a ground-based system that would fire a laser to divert missiles, while Raytheon Co.'s Vigilant Eagle uses airport towers to fire high-power microwave beams at a missile.

In 2004, the Government Accountability Office estimated that there were more than 800,000 MANPADS worldwide, and at least two dozen terrorist groups were known to have the weapons.

While Northrop officials would not discuss specifics of how the devices have worked in combat situations, they cited media reports that a British C-17 aircraft had used the system to divert a potential strike from three heat-seeking missiles.

"Let's just say people have come home," said David Denton, Northrop's director of infrared countermeasures commercial programs. "It has definitely worked."

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