Heat Seekers
A top priority for Tom Ridge.


About two months after 9/11, a QF-4 aircraft (an old F-4 Phantom fighter converted to a target drone) lifted off from a runway at the Navy test flight center at China Lake, Calif. As it flew over the test range, shoulder-fired antiaircraft missiles and air-to-air missiles were fired at it. I’ve seen the videotape taken by a camera mounted on the QF-4. When the shoulder-fired missile was launched from less than a mile away — in supersonic missile terms, up close and personal — it was detected, tracked, and its guidance destroyed within three seconds by a laser shot from a prototype system called “TAD-IRCM.” The “tactical air defense, infrared countermeasures” test set burned out the missile’s eyes, leaving it to spiral away harmlessly. An air-to-air missile was launched, detected, and rendered ineffective in less than three seconds. Both attacks were defeated in much less time than it took you to read this paragraph.

Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles are perhaps the most widespread terrorist threat to civilian aircraft. Late last week, the Brits stopped all flights into and out of Kenya because the threat of terrorists armed with shoulder-fired missiles was too great. Only last November, an Israeli charter jet narrowly missed being destroyed when al Qaeda-connected terrorists fired two Russian Strela-2s at it during its takeoff run at the Mombasa airport. The aircraft — and the 271 people aboard — escaped only because the dummies firing the missiles hadn’t followed the simple launch procedures. The next airliner may not be so lucky.

Osama bin Laden wants to destroy America by bringing down our economy. He knows — as every enemy since the turn of the last century has known — that American power is, at its foundation, economic power. Applying bin Laden’s strategy, it is a very small step to determine that America’s economic Achilles heel is commercial aviation. So much of our commerce depends on air travel and shipment that after 9/11, when all civilian aviation was grounded, the economy took a nose dive. Other factors affected the downturn, but the brief aviation bottleneck was very much at the forefront.

If bin Laden wants to devastate our economy, how better to do so than by shooting down several airliners at the same time at various airports around the country? Al Qaeda’s specialty is coordinating simultaneous attacks on several widely separated targets. They did it on 9/11, and again, on a smaller scale, in Riyadh last week. If U.S. commercial aviation were to be grounded again for weeks or months, airlines would be bankrupted, and the other commerce that depends on them would be slowed or stopped. The blow to our economy would be even more severe than 9/11 was, and public confidence in air travel safety would not be restored as quickly as it was in 2001.

Shooting down an airliner is, unfortunately, all too easy if you have a properly working missile, and competent people to fire it. Such missiles are a commonplace in the global terrorist arms bazaar. In addition to the American-made Stinger, there’s the Russian “Strela,” and others. They share the common characteristic of being heat seekers: Their guidance is in an infrared detector, which homes in on the hottest spot it’s pointed at — usually an aircraft engine’s exhaust. Most of these missiles have a range of about three to five miles and are small enough to fit in the trunk of a car. They can be smuggled across borders easily in the back of a truck, or in a seaborne shipping container. Protecting against them is, as the math guys would say, a non-trivial problem.

As the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, at least 25 terrorist organizations are known to have such missiles: “Modern shoulder-fired missiles can hit a plane from as far away as three miles… and around 25 miles into and out from an airport. That amounts to a total danger area of roughly 300 miles around an airport.” Facing just such a threat at Heathrow airport recently, the Brits placed hundreds of troops around the area.

Unfortunately, we can’t surround each of our hundreds of airports with troops. But we have to somehow protect commercial aviation from this very specific threat — which is why the Office of Naval Research is pushing hard for TAD-IRCM. There are other systems — including an older one called “LA-IRCM” (large aircraft, infrared countermeasures) — that are effective only against some types of heat-seeking weapons, and are both large and expensive. TAD-IRCM will be smaller, lighter, and effective against all modern heat seekers.

TAD-IRCM is made up of four components. First, there is an infrared detector, which sees and identifies a missile launch by its heat plume. Second is a pointer tracker that follows the missile and aims the third component, a powerful laser. The fourth and last part is a computer that makes everything work. The ONR guys running the program are trying to take the “best of breed” components from different companies and make them the government standard. It’s a good approach, but one that has met with indifference from both Congress and the Homeland Security Department. Now, an interagency working group is trying to move it forward quickly.

Even with this new attention, TAD-IRCM is 18 months from being purchased, which is far too long. The threat is real right now, and none of our civilian aircraft are protected from it. Designers are aiming at a cost of less than $1 million per aircraft, roughly half the cost of the older, less-capable systems. Should the government pay for it? Yes, at least in part. It’s a much wiser plan than risking the impact on the economy of grounding civilian aircraft.

The real issue now is that the bad guys know we’re pushing to get TAD-IRCM or something like it. They have a window of opportunity to attack defenseless aircraft now, and for at least another year. Government-contracting processes will take as long as they’re allowed to.

This is one project that shouldn’t wait. Jamming it through the system, and providing real protection for civilian aircraft should be Tom Ridge’s top priority.

— Jed Babbin was a deputy undersecretary of defense in the first Bush administration, and is the author of the novel, Legacy of Valor. He often appears as a defense commentator on the Fox News Channel and MSNBC.