Alarmed by what they call a rapidly growing threat to commercial airliners from shoulder fired missiles, U.S. lawmakers are vowing to pass legislation that would require aircraft to have anti-missile protection.
The war in Iraq, and the continuing battle against terrorism, served as the backdrop for a hearing Thursday of the Aviation Subcommittee of the House of Representatives.
Among those testifying were officials from the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), aircraft and related companies, as well as Israel's ambassador to the United States (Daniel Ayalon), and an official from Israel's Defense Ministry.
Due to the sensitivity of the information, the hearing was closed to the media. However, Congressmen John Mica told reporters afterward what he learned was, in his words, "sobering." "There has been, as you know, an incredible proliferation - somewhere in the neighborhood of a million - of these shoulder launch missiles have been produced, mainly by countries with no export control restrictions," he said. "There is a prolific number of units across the world, unfortunately more than two dozen terrorist groups have access to this type of missile."
Congressman Mica says he is determined to push through legislation "immediately if not sooner" to require commercial aircraft to be equipped with anti-missile protection.
One such Democrat-sponsored effort is already underway in the House and Senate, sponsored by New York Congressman Steve Israel and California Senator Barbara Boxer. It would fully fund installation of electronic missile defense systems on 6,800 jet aircraft, beginning in 2004.
However, there is debate over how to pay for the upgrades, particularly with the airline industry experiencing difficult times. Here is Congressman Peter DeFazio of Oregon. "There is sort of an ongoing debate over the division between what is the obligation of the industry and what is the obligation of the government in national security, and I think in this instance, I think we're clearly talking about a national security issue," said Congressman DeFazio. "There is technology off the shelf that is being used by the U.S. Air Force that is effective, and may need some adaptation to commercial fleets. So I think this should be a federal government responsibility."
The cost of installing the anti-missile systems is estimated at about $1 million for each plane. Pending legislation would have airlines pay the bill for newly-constructed aircraft.
The head of the U.S. government's Transportation Security Administration, James Loy, told the hearing that there is no credible, specific intelligence that shoulder-fired missile attacks are being planned against commercial aircraft, in his words, "at this time."
That apparently did not satisfy aviation committee chairman Mica. Recalling the attempted missile attack last year on an Israeli airliner taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, he says Congress needs to get a bill to President Bush's desk as soon as possible.