The vexing problem of protecting airliners from missiles

The vexing problem of protecting airliners from missiles

All fuel tanks in transport-category aircraft may have to be inerted, not for safety, but for security. The current thrust of Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials is aimed at employing a lightweight system to inert heated center wing tanks, i.e., those with air conditioning packs located under them. However, the Nov. 22 attack with portable missiles against a DHL cargo jet taking off from Baghdad shows that the threat to fuel tanks is not just from errant ignition sources inside the tanks, but from exploding warheads penetrating the tanks from the outside. Since man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) predominantly feature a heat-homing technology, the missiles are likely to seek hot engine exhausts. For aircraft with engines mounted under the wings, the heat-seeking characteristics of these missiles also places the wing tanks at risk. The minimalist approach to inert only heated center wing tanks may be an adequate advance for safety, but all tanks may have to be inerted for security reasons.

A recent presentation by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) researchers pointed out the security aspects of fuel tank inerting. The NASA presentation pretty much “says it all” on page four of its overview:

Civil transport aircraft are now subject to what was once only a military threat – MANPADS and small arms. (ASW note: case in point, the Oct. 23 diversion of an El Al jetliner with 180 passengers from Montreal to Toronto based on a threat conveyed by anonymous telephone call.)

Their proliferation has resulted in numerous shoot-downs and close-calls involving civil passenger aircraft.

From 1975-1998, 585 passengers and crewmembers of commercial transport aircraft died from MANPADS missile attacks. The attacks brought down 24 aircraft and severely damaged 10. (ASW note: the damage inflicted on the DHL jet brings the number of aircraft to 11.)

They have long reach to arriving/departing aircraft.

Key to the threat is the difficulty of securing 100 or more square miles of land surrounding civil airports.

They use the fuel system against the aircraft.

The explosion of a 2-lb. MANPADS warhead or impact effects of small arms can induce a far larger explosion of fuel tanks. Moderate damage can be magnified to make the aircraft unflyable.”

Countermeasures to throw off guidance systems are limited.

Countermeasures can be defeated.

Small arms operate without automatic guidance.

For the full NASA brief, see

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