Providing for the Common Defense

American Airlines will be the first U.S. commercial passenger carrier to flight test a defensive system against anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles – known in military parlance as MANPADS, for “man-portable air defense system.” Although they are participating in the test program, American Airlines is “not in favor of installing counter-MANPADS on commercial aircraft.” In fact, the airline industry as a whole has not been enthusiastic about adopting military technology for use on civilian passenger aircraft, largely because of cost considerations. According to a 2006 Air Line Pilots Association white paper [.pdf]:

“The airline industry is currently experiencing very difficult times described as ‘the perfect storm’ of high fuel prices, terrorist threats, a wartime environment, and the rise of low-cost carriers that are challenging the so-called ‘legacy’ carriers. As a result, the established hub-and-spoke airlines are fighting for their survival despite passenger loads that equal or surpass pre-September 11 levels. The Air Transport Association maintains that at this time the air transport industry cannot afford the cost of installing and maintaining C-MANPADS [counter-MANPADS] technology on their member airlines’ fleets.”

MANPADS are relatively simple surface-to-air missiles that are used by single person. Once launched, the missile homes in on its target – typically via an infrared guidance system that locks in on the heat signature from an aircraft’s engines – with a flight time of just five or six seconds until impact. An estimated 500,000 to 700,000 MANPADS have been produced worldwide and are thought to be in the military inventories of at least 56 countries. More worrisome is that, according to a U.S. government estimate, there are 6,000 MANPADS outside the control of any government. More than two dozen terrorist groups probably possess them, including al-Qaeda. And there have been more than 20 reported uses of MANPADS by non-state actors. So the terrorist threat is very real, not hypothetical.

Although the loss of life from a single MANPADS attack would be considerably less than that caused by the 9/11 attacks (perhaps several hundred killed rather than thousands), the terror spread by such an attack could be just as profound. Even an unsuccessful terrorist attack against a U.S. commercial aircraft would likely have a chilling effect on airline travel, with ripple effects felt throughout the economy. A RAND Corporation study [.pdf] concluded that “demand for air travel could fall by 15-­25 percent for months after a successful MANPADS attack on a commercial airliner in the United States. A week-long systemwide shutdown of air travel could generate welfare losses of $3-4 billion, and when losses from reduced air traffic in the following months are added in, the result could exceed $15 billion.” RAND estimated that if the airlines were shut down for one month, the total loss could be more than $70 billion. (By way of comparison, a Milken Institute study [.pdf] estimated that the U.S. economic output lost in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was $47 billion.) The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) was even more pessimistic: “Given the easy availability and number of MANPADS around the world, a future terrorist attack against commercial airliners may succeed sooner or later, potentially bringing the world economy to a standstill.” So the consequences of a terrorist MANPADS attack would not be trivial.

The problem is that increased security to prevent a MANPADS attack is not practical, because the area to be secured is quite large. For example, the RAND Corporation determined a terrorist armed with an SA-7 (a Russian-made system that can be purchased in arms bazaars around the world for as little as $5,000) would be a threat to Los Angeles International Airport anywhere within an 870-square-mile area surrounding the airport. Given the population density of Los Angeles, protecting against a single terrorist would require a dedicated security effort for an 870-square-mile area with nearly 7 million people and over 2 million housing units.

So technical countermeasures are the only way to defend against (and possibly deter) a potential MANPADS attack. Assuming such countermeasures are effective (but also knowing that they are not perfect), the deciding factors are cost and affordability. According to the RAND Corporation, it would cost $11 billion (roughly one-quarter of the total budget for the Department of Homeland Security) to outfit the entire U.S. commercial airline fleet with laser jamming countermeasures similar the kind being tested by American Airlines. To be sure, the DHS budget may not be large enough to support an $11 billion project, but the focus should not be just on DHS. While $11 billion would break the DHS budget, it is only 2 percent of the Department of Defense budget (over $480 billion exclusive of supplemental spending for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan). Moreover, in its 2007 Pig Book, Citizens Against Government Waste identified 2,658 pork barrel projects at a cost of $13.2 billion in the Defense and Homeland Security Appropriations Acts for fiscal 2007 – more than enough to pay for MANPADS countermeasures. Or to provide another perspective on the cost of MANPADS countermeasures: two months of the Iraq War.

While it is not possible to defend against all possible terrorist attacks, and acknowledging that countermeasures will not create a perfect defense against MANPADS (there is no such thing as a perfect defense) and that they will not prevent terrorists from using other means to attack aircraft or other targets, effective countermeasures will raise the cost of attack and lower the likelihood of success – thus potentially deterring terrorists from using MANPADS. So if one of the primary responsibilities of the federal government is to provide for the common defense, the U.S. government ought to be able to find needless spending equal to less than one-half of 1 percent of its bloated $2.6 trillion budget to help fulfill this important obligation.


Charlie Wilson’s War – starring Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, and Philip Seymour Hoffman – hit movie theaters over the Christmas holiday. I haven’t seen the movie yet (I did see the documentary The True Story of Charlie Wilson on the History Channel), but the book by George Crile is a good read (even though it’s nonfiction, it’s better than a Tom Clancy novel). The book and documentary (and I’m sure the movie too) portrays boozing and womanizing former Texas congressman Charlie Wilson as a hero for aiding the mujahedeen to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s – perpetuating the myth that the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan was a pivotal point in winning the Cold War. The harsh reality, however, is that Charlie Wilson’s war helped give rise to al-Qaeda. And if al-Qaeda or other radical Muslims do indeed have MANPADS in their arsenal, we can thank Charlie Wilson because that is what his war was all about – supplying the mujahedeen with Stinger missiles to shoot down Soviet helicopters. So Charlie Wilson’s War is yet another classic case of how an interventionist foreign policy (in this case, what amounted to an independent foreign policy carried out by a lone member of Congress) results in blowback. Rather than celebrating such actions, we should be learning from them.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.