Former Centcom Commander Gen. Anthony Zinni (USMC-Ret.) once observed that Saddam Hussein was just about the only foreign leader stupid enough to challenge America where it was strongest — on a conventional battlefield. Zinni was talking about Iraq’s crushing defeat in Operation Desert Storm, but he could just as easily have been discussing the current campaign, or the ones that killed rogue regimes in Serbia and Afghanistan in a few months.
Even America’s most obtuse enemies by now must have figured out that they can’t hurt America using traditional tools of warfare. That’s why the threat posed by Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups is so ominous — because they plan to hit America in places where it is weakest, where aggression is least expected. The nation is now spending about a billion dollars per week preparing for such “asymmetric” attacks, but some of the most obvious targets remain vulnerable.
A case in point is airliners, particularly those flying international routes. In much of the world, U.S. airliners are the most visible symbol of American power — a rich nation’s way of carrying its culture and influence to distant countries. Not surprisingly, airliners have become a prime target of terrorists. The federal government has done a good job of protecting passengers from hijackers and suicide bombers, but it has done almost nothing to deal with an equally persistent danger — shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles.
Military experts call such missiles “man-portable air defenses,” or MANPADS. Unfortunately, they’re just as useful in offensive as defensive operations, especially when the target is a big, unprotected airliner. And getting them isn’t hard: there are about half a million worldwide, and they are readily available on the black market for as little as $25,000. MANPADS typically require little training to use; they can be set up in minutes, and then fired to hit targets over four miles away at altitudes above 10,000 feet.
Several foreign airliners have been shot down with such weapons since the mid-1990s, killing over 300 civilians. It’s just a matter of time before a U.S. carrier is hit, because two dozen terrorist organizations are known to have MANPADS. The question is what to do about it. There’s no way to avoid the threat as long as Americans want to fly to places like Indonesia and Egypt, and nobody’s about to build a stealthy airliner. Military escorts are impractical, and decoy flares that confuse the missile’s heat-seeking sensors could cause fires on the ground.
The most promising possibility is to use an anti-missile system the Air Force is installing on its tankers and cargo planes. It shoots a low-power laser beam at the attacking missile, jamming the missile’s sensor so it can’t find the target. The system has been tested successfully over a hundred times against heat-seeking missiles, and would only cost about as much per plane as the entertainment system on a jumbojet. Nobody wants to make flying more expensive, but buying such a system now looks more sensible than waiting for some hapless tourists to lose their lives over Bali.
But the first question begs a second, more fundamental one. How do we measure increases in security? Israel, representing the gold standard for security measures, is reported to foil 15 terrorist attacks or suicide bombings for every one that gets through. But is a failure rate of 6.5% acceptable? Perhaps, if each successful attack caused “only” a few casualties; probably not if casualties were in the hundreds; and definitely not if each event resulted in tens of thousands of dead and injured. Reducing the frequency of attacks is very important. But given the reality that some attacks are going to get through, it is more important still to enhance our ability to limit the scope and scale of damage and loss of life to the lowest level possible.
The true measures of success for homeland security are not quantitative, but qualitative. It is not the number of attempted act of terrorism foiled, the mass of people deployed or the amount of resources expended. Rather, it is the existence of a family of capabilities that collectively provides high assurance of damage limitation and casualty reduction under all circumstances, but particularly against the threat of so-called catastrophic terrorism.
The Bush Administration has moved rapidly to address the most obvious national vulnerabilities, those that would make it all but inevitable that the homeland would be struck not once but many times and not with small attacks, but catastrophic ones. In creating the Department of Homeland Security, Washington sought to close obvious gaps in homeland security caused by the distribution of responsibilities among dozens of cabinet departments and government agencies. In less than a year, the Transportation Security Administration, in a unique partnership with private industry, was able to deploy tens of thousands of screeners and hundreds of screening machines to more than 440 airports nationwide in less than a year. These are important first steps.
Limiting access by terrorists to the U.S. homeland or to weapons of mass destruction (WMD) can support the overall capability for damage limitation. But the borders cannot be rendered impenetrable. Nor can access to all forms of WMD be denied with confidence. Therefore, increased security should be measured against the standards of potential lives saved and damage limited across a range of scenarios with an emphasis on potential catastrophic threat. Relatively simple measures can substantially reduce the consequences of low-order terrorism. But to a large degree, the likelihood that any single individual will be affected by this type of terrorism is statistically equivalent to random chance. Not so for catastrophic terrorism which can kill thousands and permanently affect millions more. In this era of new threats, the success of homeland security must be measured in terms of the capabilities needed to survive even the worst form of attack.
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