TOM BEARDEN: Overseas attacks on commercial aircraft have convinced the U.S. government that portable anti-aircraft missiles like these may soon become a serious threat to the more than 7,000 passenger planes that ply America's skies. They estimate some 75,000 of these so-called MANPADS -- or Man Portable Air Defense Systems -- are for sale on the worldwide black market.
JACK PLEDGER: This is an actual launch tube from an actual MANPAD, and you can see the size and see what -- how easy it is to conceal. And it's operated and fired by one man.
TOM BEARDEN: Jack Pledger is with defense contractor Northrop Grumman.
JACK PLEDGER: There are basically about 27 different terrorists groups that are identified here that are known to have these MANPAD weapons.
TOM BEARDEN: State Department data reports that more than 40 civilian aircraft, ranging in size from small planes to mutli-engine passenger jets, have been attacked by shoulder-launched missiles; that 25 of them crashed, killing more than 600 people.
One example: In 2002, a freelance cameraman photographed these men at the end of a runway at the Baghdad airport firing a MANPAD at a cargo plane, hitting its wing and forcing and emergency landing. And last month, the threat got closer to home when two men were arrested at the Los Angeles airport trying to smuggle MANPADS into the United States.
Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, whose state is headquarters for defense contractor Northrop Grumman, was one of the chief sponsors of legislation directing the Department of Homeland Security to develop countermeasures.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: The terrorists in other parts of the world have started using MANPADS as a way of causing terrorism and creating injury, doing horrible things. And it's just a matter of time before they smuggle one of these into the U.S. and try to use them.
TOM BEARDEN: Homeland Security, which declined to talk to the NewsHour, is spending $100 million testing anti-missile systems. That has three defense contractors competing for a contract that could reach $10 billion.
But some transportation experts question how serious the threat actually is, and how much money it would take to protect the entire passenger fleet.
This Federal Express MD-11 cargo jet is the test bed for one of two airborne systems being considered. The pod bolted to the underside of the plane is the prototype of an antimissile system called Guardian. The device is designed to confuse the infrared sensors that the missiles use to home in on the heat generated by a plane's engines. Northrop-Grumman's John Stanfill:
JOHN STANFILL: These four sensors that you see around there so it provides 360 degrees of coverage around the aircraft. It detects those missile launches, and then what we do is we take a laser and we point it at the missile and we divert the missile away from the aircraft such that the missile doesn't hit the aircraft.
This yellow piece of system is a turret. The turret operates like R2D2. You recall the Star Wars movies where you saw his little head spinning around and whatnot. That's how this does it, but it does this very quickly. And then we point the laser at the missile and divert the missile away.
TOM BEARDEN: Jack Pledger says he believes the technology will work. He points to these tests in the field, where the missiles were diverted with the infrared technology.
JACK PLEDGER: We're currently the only company in the world that's been able to build and produce an operational system like this. We are on about 300 airplanes right now. And we know it works. We know it's highly effective.
TOM BEARDEN: But BAE Systems, Europe's largest defense contractor, says, not so fast. They've installed their version of anti-MANPADS technology, called JETEYE, on this American Airlines 767. BAE says they've already delivered more than 14,000 infrared countermeasures systems worldwide, including systems for military helicopters.
JETEYE works on the same basic principles as Guardian. But the sensors are installed all over the plane instead of concentrated in a pod, and the laser head is smaller than Guardian's canoe-sized device.
Steve DuMont is the project manager.
STEVE DuMONT: When the system receives a handoff from the electrical optical missile subsystem arrayed around the airplane, this small infrared tracker will then look to that source and start to discern whether in fact it's a missile.
Once we achieve that high fidelity understanding that it's a missile this small aperture here is where that laser beam fires out and defeats the missile.
TOM BEARDEN: BAE says this approach produces less drag than Guardian's pod, which means less fuel burned. That's a critical operating cost factor for airlines, a number of which are operating under bankruptcy protection.
Northrop Grumman counters that their system would be faster to install and more easily maintained. Both systems are pretty much "hands off" for the pilots.
Once the system is turned on, it automatically detects, then misdirects the missile and simultaneously notifies the ground of the event. Both contractors say the lasers are strong enough to hurt the missile's sensors, but not human eyeballs on the ground.
BERT KEIRSTEAD: The laser actually mixes very high-powered radiation that gets into the optics or the eyeball of the missile seeker, dazzles it effectively, and causes it to lose its track of the aircraft and fall harmlessly away.
TOM BEARDEN: The Department of Homeland Security has set a price goal of $1 million per system, per plane. A study by the independent research company, the Rand Corporation, projected it would cost up to $11 billion to equip the entire U.S. fleet, and another $2 billion per year for maintenance. The author of that study, senior engineer Jim Chow, says that's just too much.
JIM CHOW: If you compare it to how much we're spending on transportation security as a whole, which is a little over $4 billion a year, it's a significant fraction. And so then we have to ask the question: What are the kinds out there against transportation security as a whole, and does it make this -- does it make sense to allocate this much money just on this one particular threat?
TOM BEARDEN: Chow is not the only one that contends the price tag is too high. So does the executive vice president of the Air Transport Association, which lobbies for the airlines.
JOHN MEENAN: We can't expand in the case of counter MANPADS technology as much as a $100 and $150 billion, which is what we believe it would cost over the life cycle of the program, in a technology that really just deals with one aspect of one threat without taking into account could we spend that money more prudently to do other things that deal with the MANPADS threat, but also deal with other threats that are out there?
TOM BEARDEN: The Airline Pilots Association is skeptical of the threat posed by MANPADS. They say their relatively small warheads can damage a large plane, but that a single hit is unlikely to bring one down.
Bob Hesselbein is a Northwest Airlines captain who also flies military aircraft. He is the chairman of the APLA's national security committee.
CAPT. BOB HESSELBEIN: I would say they are exaggerating the threat relative to things that are right now dangers that we face -- improvised explosives, seizing of our aircraft. Those are the things that we need to focus more attention upon.
Right now we are far more worried about people on our planes trying to seize the flight deck during flight, than we are against shoulder-fired missiles or two or three shoulder-fired missiles coming at us from an airport.
TOM BEARDEN: But Sen. Schumer says a successful MANPAD attack on U.S. soil would devastate the U.S. economy, costing far more than any antimissile system.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER: You don't want to be in the "what if" situation. What if you wake up one morning and planes have been shot down in a coordinated way in New York and Chicago and Los Angeles, first and worst the horrible loss of life, but people would stop flying for months and it would cost a lot more than $11 billion of economic damage.
TOM BEARDEN: Some transportation security analysts believe the government ought to consider a system that defends airports instead of individual aircraft. That's because MANPADS are only effective up to about 10,000 feet. Planes are vulnerable to them only during takeoff and only during takeoff and landing; they fly too high otherwise.
Proponents say airport defense systems would be far less expensive than trying to equip every airplane. Raytheon has been developing such a system for the department of defense for the past decade.
SPOKESMAN: Vigilant people can provide a reliable cost effective counter MANPADS protection system that will --
TOM BEARDEN: The technology has been classified until recently. This year's budget appropriates money to start testing their system. Michael Booen is one of the chief developers.
MICHAEL BOOEN: This is a high-power microwave. And what it -- what we do is we put this billboard sized array of high-power microwave amplifiers at the airport. And when a shoulder-fired missile is shot at a commercial airliner or around the airport, you know, we basically form this dome of protection around the airport.
We have infrared missile warning sensors that sense the missile and tells this billboard-sized antenna to propagate a microwave beam at the shoulder-fired missile. And when the high-powered microwave hits the shoulder-fired missile, it disrupts the guidance and it guides it harmlessly away from the aircraft.
TOM BEARDEN: Booen says Raytheon's system would cost about $25 million per airfield; that defending 25 to 30 of the biggest U.S. airports would protect 70 percent of all takeoffs and landings far more cheaply than the airborne systems.
But Northrop Grumman and BAE say airport systems can't protect the thousands of planes that routinely leave the United States.
JACK PLEDGER: Most of our commercial carriers fly these airplanes out of the United States, and so if you protect an airport in the U.S. And you fly the airplane away from here to an international destination, you just left your protection behind if you don't have something on the airplane that you carry with you to provide the defense that's needed against these threats.
TOM BEARDEN: Testing of the airborne and airport systems will continue for at least another six months, with a decision anticipated by the fall of next year.