Why aren’t airliners equipped with anti-missile defense systems?
As El Al’s Boeing 737 took off for the first commercial flight between Israel and United Arab Emirates, under its belly one could see a small oval pod, called C-MUSIC. Why was it mounted there, and what would happen if someone tried to shoot down the plane? Let’s dive down into the world of civilian-mounted air-defense systems.
The new generation of man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) became a salvation for world’s armies and the nightmare of the world’s air forces in the 70s. Those systems were relatively cheap, highly transportable, and required next to no training to operate. After firing, a missile would home in on a heat source, such as an exhaust of an aircraft engine, and track it until the impact.
These systems have short range, as they are designed to protect soldiers from attacking helicopters and airplanes. The target has to be flying low and relatively slow. Exactly the way any civilian airliner behaves while taking off and landing.
Air Vietnam Douglas C-54D-5-DC most likely became the first passenger aircraft to be shot down by MANPADS in 1975, killing all 20 passengers and crew. Although several similar attacks happened in the following decade, they were not common. The situation changed radically in the early 90s, as after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ex-Red Army MANPADS flooded the black market, and became available to all kinds of insurgents, guerrillas and terrorist groups across the world.
In 1993, MANPADS were used to shoot down a jet carrying presidents of Rwanda and Burundi. In 1998, Lionair Antonov An-24 was brought down over Sri Lanka killing 55 people. In 2003, DHL Airbus A300 was hit over Baghdad, but pilots miraculously managed to land the burning airplane. These are just some of the dozens attempted and successful examples, as, according to an estimate of the U.S. Department of State, more than 800 deaths were caused by MANPADS attacks on civilian aircraft between 1975 and 2006.
DHL Airbus A300 after being hit with MANPADS over Baghdad (Photo: U.S. Department of Homeland Security)
The catalyst for change came in 2002, as during the Mombasa attacks al-Qaeda militants fired two MANPADS at Arkia Airlines Boeing 757 taking off from Moi International Airport (MBA). Both missiles missed, but Israeli Ministry of Transportation ordered Flight Guard, a defense system previously used only on military aircraft, to be tested on airliners.
Since the appearance of heat-seeking missiles, military aircraft have been fitted with countermeasures in the form of flares – decoys, designed to be dropped as soon as a missile is detected. Burning flares would distract or confuse heat-seeking warheads and lead them away from the aircraft. Flight Guard is one of such systems, consisting of sensors and flare-dispensing mechanisms. It was promptly fitted on several airliners belonging to El Al, Arkia and Israir.
But the problem is that dropping dozens of white-hot burning flares over a civilian airport or densely populated area is not a particularly good idea. False alarms sometimes occur, and even in an event of a real attack, setting the whole neighborhood on fire could be considered problematic. Hence, in 2006, a number of European countries banned El Al aircraft equipped with Flight Guard.
Better systems had to be developed. One of possible solutions is using flares with pyrophoric substance instead of various metal-based compositions. Such substances are set on fire after contact with the air, burn at lower temperatures, and mimic the heat signature of a jet engine more closely. Swedish Saab Avitronics began offering their Civil Aircraft Missile Protection System (CAMPS), equipped with such flares, in 2007.
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