The effort by the Transportation Security Administration to make U.S. commercial airliners safe from hijacking and bombs is only the beginning. The attempt to shoot down a commercial airliner in Africa on February with two infra-red (IR) guided, man-portable surface-to-air missiles showed the world that an equally serious threat exists. 50,000 of these weapons exist worldwide. Many already may be in the hands of terrorists.
Protecting large aircraft against this threat is a concern for both the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. military. Until recently, only passive countermeasures, either chaff, flares or IR “blinders,” were available to address this threat. Currently, none of these systems are deployed on U.S. commercial airliners. Now, there exists the possibility of deploying a laser defense that would shoot down man-portable SAMs. This system would complement the use of passive defenses and together provide the bases for a layered defense.
Active airport defenses could be provided by a variant of short-range tactical high-energy laser (THEL) developed by the U.S. Army and the Government of Israel. The THEL is the most successful anti-missile program ever developed. It has intercepted more than 30 Katyusha rockets and five artillery shells. A mobile version of the THEL, the MTHEL, is currently under development. It is this system that would serve as the basis for an active airport defense capability.
A directed energy weapon is probably the only way of engaging a man portable SAM during its short time-of-flight. The airport defense version of the MTHEL, dubbed HORNET, would employ a combination of the airport’s radar plus its own IR sensors to provide high quality target identification and tracking. Special targeting algorithms will prevent the system from accidentally firing on aircraft or ground features. The HORNET provides a unique combination of speed-of-light engagement, extremely precise targeting, lethality and operational safety particularly well suited to the requirement for a high-confidence, rapidly responsive system with which to defeat SAMs.
The HORNET system would not have to be deployed at all of the nation’s airports. Some 80 per cent of all take-offs and landings in the United States occur at 30 major airports. Defending these airports would substantially reduce the risk.
An actual shoot-down of a SAM is currently being planned. This experiment would cost only several million dollars and require but a few months of preparation time. It can be demonstrated that THEL can safely shoot down a SAM, the first deployable unit could be available in approximately three years.
Unfortunately, the acquisition system does not appear to be moving with the speed necessary to capitalize on the near-term opportunity provided by the MTHEL program. The effort to finds the small amount of money necessary to prove the viability of the HORNET system is moving very slowly. This could delay the planned test until next year. The acquisition system appears to need a jump start to move forward on this important concept.
Find Archived Articles: