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Research underway to Protect Airliners from Missiles

The U.S. government is attempting to address concerns that civilian aircraft are vulnerable to shoulder fired surface-to-air missiles. So it is testing a new anti-missile defense for commercial aircraft.

The threat did not begin with the events of September 11th, 2001. But those tragic acts of terrorism certainly heightened concerns that civilian aircraft is vulnerable to missile attacks.

To address those concerns, Los Angeles Airport is now doubling as a test center. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman is testing its anti-missile technology on commercial aircraft.

"MANPADS," or small surface-to-air missiles that are easily launched by one person, are the concern.

Two missiles targeted an Israeli jet in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002, but missed. And U.S. government and defense industry analysts say that world-wide terrorists have fired on at least 29 civilian planes with surface-to-air missiles since the 1970s.

For now, Northrop is equipping 11 Federal Express jets with its 'Guardian' anti-missile pods.The pods have sensors to spot and track incoming missiles and lasers to disable them.

Northrop Grumman's Jack Pledger explains, "When the system locks on the missile it fires a very intense laser beam of infrared energy at the missile and knocks it off course."

The system is automatic. There is nothing for the crew to do. Pledger adds, "Before this, these systems were only used on military aircraft. We are going to operate in the commercial environment. We're going to see how this concept works in a commercial operation and we're going to gather data on the system."

Senator Barbara Boxer of California expresses her hope for success, "We are very hopeful that this will prove successful, - that it will prove affordable…."

The system costs between one and three million dollars per aircraft. The U.S. Congress is considering legislation that calls for installation of the system in all commercial aircraft.