LONDON (Reuters) - U.S. researchers are exploring the use of laser or infrared systems to protect not just single planes but whole flight zones from attack by shoulder-launched missiles, a top government scientist said on Thursday.
Starnes Walker, director of research at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology directorate, said tests had shown that high-altitude platforms could detect the launch of such missiles, but there were huge scientific challenges in diverting them off-target.
He said that while there were no quick solutions, the potential benefits were large because existing technology to kit out individual planes against the missiles, known as Manpads, is hugely expensive for airlines.
“We don’t find the airlines real happy about the idea of putting systems on there that maybe cost two to three, four million dollars apiece,” Walker said in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute, a London security think-tank.
“The physics is kind of tough, but is it possible for us to move beyond protection of individual airliners to ... the coverage of large areas?”
The program, known as Project Chloe after a character in the popular TV counter-terrorism series “24”, would rely on unmanned aircraft ‘loitering’ at high altitude to spot Manpads being launched from the ground.
The problem, Walker said, was how to direct sufficient energy, at the right angle of attack, to interfere with the ‘seeker’ directing the Manpad (man-portable air defense system) to its target.
“These are usually infra-red seekers homing in on heat,” Walker told Reuters after his presentation.
“We would need to provide infra-red energy, whether it comes in the form of a solid-state laser or some type of infra-red beam that says ‘my signal source is brighter than the heat source that you’re now looking at’, and (would) then tell it to move directionally some place else, or confuse the sensor.
“Now the question is: how can we confuse the seeker from a regional type of platform, whether it’s at high altitude or it’s a ground-based system. I’m just saying that the science, the physics of doing that, is going to be a real challenge and I don’t think we have any quick solutions right now.”
Manpads are seen as an attractive terrorist weapon as they are compact and easy to move around, typically measuring around five feet long and weighing some 35 lb.
In 2002, al Qaeda operatives in Kenya fired two Soviet-designed Strela 2 anti-aircraft rockets at an Israeli charter plane, narrowly missing it. The incident prompted the Group of Eight nations the following year to tighten export controls to keep Manpads out of the hands of “terrorists or states that harbor them”.
But the weapons are widely distributed — mujahideen fighters, for example, used U.S. “Stingers” to deadly effect against Soviet aircraft in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Walker said there was evidence of militants trying to smuggle such weapons into the West.
“We certainly see terrorists wanting to try to get those in-country ... Since there are so many of them sitting around, we worry about someone covertly being able to get one of those in and shooting down an airliner.”
Editing by Giles Elgood