Plans in works to deter missile attacks on planes


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 9:57 p.m.

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The Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.dot.gov

WASHINGTON - The federal government is working on plans to prevent terrorists from shooting down commercial airliners with shoulder-fired missiles, a concern among aviation officials even before an unsuccessful attack on an Israeli jet in Kenya in November.
The National Security Council, the White House office of homeland security, the FBI and transportation safety agencies are part of a task force that is coordinating efforts to assess the threats and thwart attacks, presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer said Wednesday.
"There have already been steps taken" that must remain confidential for security reason, Fleischer said, adding that more plans are in the works.
Though security has been tightened considerably at airports since the Sept. 11 attacks, passenger planes are seen as vulnerable to missiles that could be launched from outside an airport's perimeter.
Federal officials are looking at various options, from technological countermeasures to neighborhood watch programs, Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner said.
"There's a wide-ranging, active discussion about this issue," he said.
Shoulder-fired missiles are relatively cheap and easy to use. Hundreds and perhaps thousands of SA-7s - heat-seeking rockets that can hit low-flying aircraft within 30 miles - are available to terrorists on the worldwide gray arms market.
Terrorists fired two SA-7 missiles that narrowly missed an Israeli passenger jet after it took off from Mombasa, Kenya on Nov. 28. Officials concluded that al-Qaeda was probably behind the attack, which was launched from a four-wheel drive vehicle one mile from the airport.
U.S. airports are being surveyed now to assess their vulnerability, Lunner said, and airport security personnel have been put on alert.
FBI spokesman John Iannarelli said the focus has been on identifying vulnerable areas at the nation's airports and ensuring greater vigilance among local police and airport officials.
One approach under consideration is a neighborhood watch program that would educate local police and residents near airports to identify missile parts and to be on the lookout for suspicious people.
"Someone is not going to be able to just whip one of these things out of a briefcase," he said. "It would be difficult for someone, in this day and age, to do this because you could be easily detected if seen."
FBI officials said countermeasures have been put in place at airports and elsewhere but they declined to discuss specifics.
Technological solutions are being explored as well, Lunner said. Military countermeasures are among those being considered, he said. Military aircraft carry flares that can be launched to draw a missile.
Those solutions are expensive, though, and the financially strapped airline industry is reluctant to assume any more costs for security than it already has.
The existence of the task force was first reported Wednesday by The Washington Post.

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