To LA With a Bullet: Antimissile Technology on Passenger Jets
by Guy Martin
Today's "smart" antiaircraft munitions are sort of like the Hounds of Hell disguised as rockets: Once their nose-mounted infrared seekers lock on to the heat signature of the engine exhaust, it's damn near impossible to throw them off.
Used to be, pilots would drop ultra-hot flares that would (occasionally) confuse the seekers. In the last decade, we developed the battlefield tech to track and blind the missile's infrared eye--in the few seconds of flight that the missile has to the jet--by zapping it with an extremely powerful laser. A ray gun, basically.
Cool, no? It gets cooler:
A sleek new iteration of the ray gun is now being tested under a $102 million R&D program sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security. The new wrinkle here is that the technology was developed for--and is being tested on--passenger liners, specifically, on three American Airlines Boeing 767s that ply the route between JFK and LAX.
The system, called JETEYE, was conceived and manufactured by the Electronic Warfare Division of Nashua, New Hampshire's BAE Systems, a defense contractor that supplies the Army and the Air Force with similar technologies for the battlefield.
As its battlefield cousins do, JETEYE senses the incoming missile's infrared tracking signal (with which the missile paints its target) and pulses a super-intense beam of light into the missile's reticle, or eye, scrambling its brains. Result: one really drunk missile.
Let's take a moment to reassure our more delicate LAX- or JFK-bound fliers in the performing arts--producers, directors, musicians, actors, and their therapists, hairdressers, and nutritionists--that the current round of JETEYE tests on the JFK-LAX route does not, repeat, does NOT, include firing missiles at these jets.
The live-fire questions have been answered over the R&D years at the appropriate missile ranges, using the appropriate drones. JETEYE made the missiles do crazy curlicues and then fall down. It may be the only system with the ability to make antiaircraft missiles go wide with such comic effect, as if they were in a Roadrunner cartoon.
The current battery of tests, lasting until March 2009, concerns itself instead with the aerodynamic capabilities of the belly-mounted JETEYE pod, how difficult (or easy) it is to maintain, how it fits into the use of a passenger aircraft in real time.
The larger question, of course, is why the DHS funded the program. Counterterrorism experts worldwide have assumed for some years that heat-seeking missiles will be used against passenger jets. And they have: One attempt in 2002, by a cell of Mombasa-based terrorists against an El-Al jetliner, failed because they mishandled the launch.
Between 2004 and 2006 El-Al outfitted its passenger jets with anti-missile flares.
"The idea is to test the suitability of this proven battlefield technology in civilian life" says Matthew Bates, spokesman for BAE's Electronic Warfare Division. "Should they have to, Homeland Security wants to be ready to counter the scenario of a van snaking through Brooklyn to the outskirts of JFK, a terrorist firing a shoulder-mounted missile at a passenger jet, then escaping up the Van Wyck Expressway. JETEYE counters that threat."
The thinking in U.S. and European counterterror agencies goes like this: Whatever else our wars have accomplished, they've provided all participants--especially our enemies--with excellent battlefield training. For instance, the expertise demonstrated in Mumbai.
The Mumbai group navigated by GPS, communicated with their battle-hardened Pakistani superiors during the operation by Internet and satellite telephony, were trained in explosives, in hostage-taking, in waterborne assault tactics and close-order firefights. Their attack was not the London Tube bombings, nor the Madrid commuter trains. It's why they were able to hold off a much larger force for 90 hours.
So, let's assume we are successful in "pacifying" Afghanistan--and Pakistan--in the next few years. It's a big if, but okay.
Here are the Cliff Notes of the history of heat-seeking missiles in Pakistan: As the Soviets pull their troops out of Afghanistan in 1989, the Central Intelligence Agency leaves thousands of Stinger antiaircraft missiles in the arms pipeline to the factions of the mujahideen that the United States supported against the Russians.
Some of the Stingers--our own U.S.-made, shoulder-mounted, heat-seeking antiaircraft missile, an ingenious product that killed many Russian pilots--are still in that theater of war, along with other, similar munitions. NATO, U.S., and other coalition forces are on the receiving end of them now. The point is that the tactic of using them is ubiquitous in Afghanistan to this day. The munitions and the expertise are in the hands of our enemies.
JETEYE's development and testing is worth its weight because it's a contingency--a smart one--held in reserve for the time when the expertise, and the anger to use it, arrive in our civil sphere.