back to article DHS to fit airliners with laser beam defences

The US Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that it will mount testbed anti-missile defence kit on three airliners this year, in order to assess how it affects performance in the commercial aviation environment. Aerospace Daily & Defense Report reports that the DHS will pay defence/aerospace giant BAE Systems $29m to …


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  1. Mark Burton

    I know

    "which it does by focusing a suitable laser on the missile"

    how about missiles that track bright lasers stuck on the back of planes

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    I won't fly AA

    Correct me if I'm a bit paraniod, but surley the way to test to see if they work is to fire a missile at the plane. Bugger that for a game of soldiers !

  3. Aram

    Frickin' lasors

    Just hoping I'm the first with that one...

  4. Paul R
    Black Helicopters

    Just how scared...

    ...are they tying to make us?

    Population control 101... make the population scared stupid, they'll then agree to virtually anything no matter how insane it actually is.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    RE: I know

    Passive tracking (like the SA-2s) has been around for a long time. Luckily it's not so popular with the MANPADS stuff getting around the black market.

  6. Anonymous Coward


    ...yet more security pork for Dicks mates..............

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Well, there was that one in Kenya, that missed.

    The threat is more likely to be a nut-job with an RPG stood on a car at the end of a runway.

  8. Peter Leech Silver badge

    manpads defense

    The tech works, manpads systems are IR missiles. IR missiles use a sensitive seeker head which gets burned out by the laser. The Israeli's use it on their airliners, someone fired a missile at one a few years back which was successfully defeated.

    The only thing is who pays for it. The airline industry favor more security on the ground side, presumably because they don't have to pay for it. The only thing is that ground security is completely ineffective, especially if the person firing it is not worried about getting out alive afterwards. As the article says, you could potentially fire it within a 5 mile radius of an airport. Its literally impossible to protect such an area on every airport worldwide, which makes defenses on the airliner the only sensible way of protecting the airliner.

    If your going to go about protecting airliners this is the only effective way of doing it, which just leaves the question, is it worth doing?

    Of course, everybody will say no until the first airliner gets shot down, at which point they will be demanding to know why it wasn't fitted.

  9. Andraž Levstik


    Wee so now there is no more excuse for being a civil aircraft to avoid being targeted as a threat...

    Now you are a threat. Scary. Guess I'll ditch flying on such planes...

    As for terrorists... They've already WON... The point of the terrorist is to instill TERROR

    and they have done that sufficiently enough that all the governments are flipping like crazy to better lock down and control and monitor people. Instead of protecting our liberty and freedom they are taking it away in the name of protecting us from terrorists...

  10. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    Re: RE: I know

    All infrared tracking is passive and this is exactly how Russian-made Strela-7 and Igla (and the Stingers too) work. Newer versions also can have imagers to filter out flares and these are also passive.

    The laser is supposed to saturate or burn the missile's sensors and thus blind it. This suggests to me that the command-guided missiles such as Blowpipe (which are not liked by the military as they require the operatior to continuously track the target, which may be difficult, dangerous and prone to human error) may actually suit the terrorists more - perhaps good news for Thales or whoever makes them...

    The question which is more interesting for me though is the detection system required for the system - because the missiles are passive it must be able to detect the actual launch (UV or heat signature?) and be able to tell it from the neighbourhood BBQ party. Sounds expensive!

    But I think this is all a diversion - the actual purpose of these laser systems must be to shoot down UFOs and perhaps an odd Russian ICBM (what with the Big Boeing Ray Gun Plane not yet finished something surely is needed to plug the gap).

  11. TeeCee Gold badge

    Threat #2

    Hmm, that one in Kenya that missed. I wonder if the Israelis have been doing something similar to that which the DHS are contemplating for a while. There's been much speculation on how *anyone* could miss a big passenger jet with a Strela. It's a pretty much pillock-proof system as long as you point it in vaguely the right direction. It's always been assumed that some sort of countermeasures were involved, but the Israelis aren't telling. IIRC the Strela has some clever stuff about it that makes it pretty much immune to a basic "flares 'n chaff" approach to shaking one off.

  12. David Harper

    Don't let British Airways get their hands on this kit

    Given their history of dirty tricks, they would probably turn the lasers on other airlines' planes.

  13. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    RE: Threat #2

    "It's a pretty much pillock-proof system as long as you point it in vaguely the right direction."

    Pillock-proof it is definitely not. You have to get the seeker head to aquire the target then deflect the tube upwards to compensate for the sagging of the missile's path as it jumps out of the launcher but not yet going fast enough. But this deflection must not be so big as to make the seeker to loose the target. I saw soldiers training for hours tracking flares to get this sequence right...

    Then there is the missile maintenance. These Russian missiles used in Kenya were old. It was a known problem with the early versions that the lubricants were drying out and the control surfaces become too stiff for the actuators - so the missile was unable to steer itself even though the seeker tracked the target...

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Friendly Fire

    I just can't wait for the first competing airline's plane shot down in a "friendly fire" incident.

  15. heystoopid


    So does this mean that all commercial airliners will be able to spoof the laser range finders and smart bomb target system lasers of those lost Air National Guard pilots flying around in circles in either the F117 upside down nighthawks or the crappy literally falling out of the sky lose my nose obsolete F15A's on midnight exercises with concrete ballast instead of real active radar systems(they needed the spare parts in Iraq for some reason?)

  16. b166er


    Wasn't there some b*ll*cks once about kids blinding pilots with laser pointers?

    This would take that to a whole new level.

  17. Matt Bryant Silver badge

    Blowpipe? Ooops, plenty of them in Afghanistan!

    Before the CIA gave the Afghans Stingers, the Afghans also tried Blowpipes supplied via the Pakistani ISI. The Afghans did record a number of successes with it, and there has been no way to account for all the Blowpipes given to the Mujahadeen and possibly since passed to Al-Quaida or other terrorist groups. Jumbos are not agile strike aircraft flying nap-of-the-Earth at speed - firing Blowpipe against a slow-climbing Jumbo flying a straight and predictable course would be relative child's play for a trained operator sitting under that early flightpath.

    There are missiles that home on reflected laserbeams such as the SAAB RBS-70, but these only home on the very specific wavelength of their guiding beam and not an IR dazzler. However, if the wavelength of the IR dazzler became common knowledge (highly likely if it is put on all commercial aircraft), then it would not be beyond the capability of an extremely resourceful group to make a homer matched to the same wavelength. But for less effort they could make simple ballistic rockets/mortars to bombard an airport.

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Threat #3

    In Iraq, one would expect there to be a shed load of good quality well maintained handheld AA systems of a fairly recent vintage.

    Strangely they seem to either be missing a lot, or there's not many about.

    If there's not many about in Iraq they're probably difficult to get hold of so not too much of a concern there either.

    Passenger aircraft have been shot down by handheld launchers, I think there were a ocuple in Zimababwe in the late 70's. It'll happen again. If it's so easy to create such countermeasures, then the missile design will change to make them ineffective, thus rendering the massive investment in something that would so far in history have been useless, a big waste of dosh.

    Not least because when some nut-job on a car roof at the end of a runway pops an unguided RPG into a lumbering 747 on take off, amongst the millions of damage will be an expensive anti-missile system.

    For an idea of the ease of such an attack, have a look at the martinique airport clips on youtube.

  19. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Dumbest statement of 2008 so far

    "There is no industry support for anti-missile devices on commercial aircraft ... "

    Gee, how fast would that change if a 747 was splashed with 400 people on board?

    It is this kind of bureaucratic thinking which has damaged the airline industry to begin with.

  20. Rick

    dazzles or...

    what about bedazzling the plane??

  21. Anonymous Coward

    Blinding idea

    It's difficult to home on any source if your sensor has been completely fried by the radiation it's homing on. That's the intention of the countermeasure. If it's good enough to backscan down the launch plume, it can probably defeat user-guided missiles too, by blinding the aimer. But that makes it dangerous to innocent targets on the ground or other planes' pilots.

  22. George

    Just a couple o' points...

    "By Stu Reeves

    Correct me if I'm a bit paraniod, but surley the way to test to see if they work is to fire a missile at the plane. Bugger that for a game of soldiers !"

    Read the article, already been tested, this is in position testing to test for fuel consumption differences, drag, weight and flying performance effects.

    And for By Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    You are quite right, the system has to tell the difference between BBQ and launch, I believe it does this by using a combination of the flare of a launch and switch on of the infrared seeker (normally a short while after the missile launch). Don't quote me on that though!

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >switch on of the infrared seeker

    How does it know that then?

    Surely the difference between a BBQ and a missile is a few hundred mph... or at least you'd hope...

    What if the guy on the ground uses a laser to blind the aircrafts IR sensor?

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Holy shit, the Reg readership as a group know a lot about military hardware. Coup, anyone?

  25. Anonymous Coward

    This is the answer to the airline industry's problems...

    yeah.. along with this, fit those commercial aircraft with smart weapons and bunker busters while you are at it..will save the RAF and USAF tonnes of fuel for starters.

    why maintain so many fighter aircraft and associated personnel in conflict regions when commercial aircraft can involve in dogfights when they are put on DHS-enabled autopilot?

    with a little bit of improv, the ATC can pass dynamic commands to the plane's computer to drop depleted U shells on Iran or Bora Bora, the next time a UA plane is flying from London to Karachi?

    I can already see a new form of tourism industry emerging for all those cash strapped airlines. Bunker Busting tours with ringside seats from the top should have more people queuing up. or perhaps a Delta flight and UA aircraft playing cat and mouse fights at 20000ft instead of those boring inflight entertainment they come up with? That way, passengers will complain a lot less about the cardboard diet as well.

    Surely, a bit of fun and adventure on a mundane business trip sounds much more appealing than a benign cruise on the A380 and is sure to rake in millions?

  26. Eleanor Rigby
    Black Helicopters

    @A.C. and @Aram

    sure, with their knowledge and Aram's and my piloting skills (no-one else got Aram's joke? - good joke Aram), we can certainly mount a coup!

    who was the fellow that wrote a pilot joke in the comments of the unmanned drones article recently? he's probably a pilot too. i vote for an unmanned drone takeover - programmers, pilots and hardware junkies unite.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Raytheon builds these here

    and got them installed on some cargo freighters. Which is funny because one of the loudest Democratic voices claiming the "war on terror" is unnecessary and paranoia, and who happened to be on the Armed Forces Appropriations Committee, and who's husband is a big cheese with Raytheon, is the one proudly going on about how these devices will "protect" people from "terrorists".

    Media of course, barely reporting the story. Wouldn't want to find out that wartime profiteering is not only bipartisan, but spreads exclusively with the express permission (with the right kickbacks) to our own Senate Majority Leader.

    But, it's only scandal if you're not pro-socialism.

  28. Andy Bright

    Don't fly with large airlines

    Anyone notice how it's always the larger airlines like United, BA or AA that get targeted by terrorists? Personally I don't remember a single attack against Jet Blue or Joe's "Honest We Do Maintenance, No Really" Airlines.

    Perhaps that's the answer. Simply repaint all the planes with random logos and let them go a bit rusty and stuff. Ok we might risk the odd couple engines don't work exactly as intended (or fall off), but at least we know the jihadists prefer planes that have a chance of making their destinations over airlines that have done away with expenses like in-flight food, movies and charge an extra 3 quid for a seat on planes where all the doors stay closed and stuff.

  29. Anonymous Coward

    A few thoughts...

    How well does this system cope with multiple targets?

    How well does it prioritise targets?

    How long does it take to engage and kill (or assume killed) a target?

    My thought being that you could just as easily fire off two missiles as one, from different locations, giving a much higher likelihood of successful engagement.

    It would also be possible to fire off a decoy or two first, then a live/serviceable missile shortly afterwards - the system is busy engaging the decoys and the live one gets through. Last time I saw some for sale, surplus IR missiles (sans warhead, but otherwise functional if a bit old) were pretty cheap (in the order of a couple of hundred quid) so quite practical for decoy use.

    Of course it's just as easy to acquire an AA gun - given the range and the type of target this would probably work at least as well. Probably better.

    Or you go for an RPG, not the easiest shot but not too difficult. These have the advantage of being cheap, easy to get, easy to conceal and easy to move. (Thinking more of an M72 than the RPG7 type).

    Or you go for a wire-guided missile.

    Or one of the many other options!

    If you really intend to take down an airliner then there are all sorts of options out there. But the reality is that the only one you can realistically put an onboard countermeasure in place for is an IR seeker. So unsurprisingly that's what was developed.

    Personally I don't think it's worth the effort. There are better, cheaper ways of dealing with the issue (site security for a start), and it isn't really that much of an issue anyway except for a few specific locations e.g. Iraq, where someone found out exactly how well an A300 deals with combat damage.

    No doubt though this will continue regardless, causing huge upfront and ongoing expense for no real benefit. Just like so many other 'security' measures then!

  30. Joe Cooper

    Flares 'n chaff

    "IIRC the Strela has some clever stuff about it that makes it pretty much immune to a basic "flares 'n chaff" approach to shaking one off."

    Chaff is a radar countermeasure, not relevant to heats.

    Some more expensive missiles can see in multi-color infrared, so they can differentiate between a flare and the target because they have a different color.

    Monochrome-sighted missiles can't differentiate and are more likely to bite off on a flare.


    As for this system, I don't see a problem with it except for the cost. Airlines are like elephants balancing on fences; the slightest financial breeze can blow them off into bankruptcy.

    Hence the post-9/11 airline bailouts, which wasn't really unusual considering many countries subsidize their airlines anyway.


    For this system, even if it does accidentally spot a BBQ or a bonfire, all it does is shine a weak IR light on it. It's not like it'll be shooting grills in people's yards with a gatling gun.


    And why are some of us getting all paranoid about this? I'm not gonna say the government isn't trying to scare people or anything, but putting IR countermeasures on jets isn't even remotely "big brother" territory.

    It's just a missile jammer. It doesn't even ~do anything~ unless there's a missile heading for it. In which case it does something ~awesome~.

    So save the big brother rants.

  31. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

    @Joe Cooper

    "For this system, even if it does accidentally spot a BBQ or a bonfire, all it does is shine a weak IR light on it. It's not like it'll be shooting grills in people's yards with a gatling gun."

    Yes, but presumably it will sound an alarm in the cockpit, spook the pilots who will then declare an emergency, do an evasion manoeuvre, the airport will close down its airspace, flights schedules will be disrupted for hours, passengers will be kicked off planes and will have to sleep on the floor etc etc... So there better be no false positives...

    I agree with you that the main issue at the moment is cost. However, should that system be installed I'm sure the military would want to get their foot in the door and have some control over it (advanced technology, must not fall into the enemy hands, can't trust civilians to operate a complex battle system etc) and try to impose some procedures onto the civil aviation, perhaps getting in the day to day management, putting their people into each airline and airport etc etc - it can't be a good thing.

  32. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    >big brother rants.

    It's not a big brother rant, it's just that for no good reason the price of going on the hajj/to ibiza next year will double because some loony islamist has succeeded in forcing loony americans to insist on loony electronic countermeasures that won't work against the actual threat anyway.

    Actually, this has me wondering how easy it would be to actually make a guided missile from stock parts, RC aircraft bits, one of those mini-SOC-pc things, explosive from the hairdressers... Maybe you wouldn't even have to ship one in.

    Another thought for a decoy - ferrari with a bbq strapped to the roof...

  33. scott
    Thumb Down

    TCAS gone baaad

    Hmmm – seems pretty pointless to me. Every commercial airliner is fitted with a Mode S transponder\TCAS, which reports back everything you need to target an aircraft; unique aircraft identifier, altitude, bearing and airspeed. The transponder in the airliner will most happily broadcast this info when interrogated.

    Get yourself the relevant electronics and software (i.e and old laptop and transceiver available in most good General Aviation retailers, and) and you have a guidance system that can target a specific *flight*.

    The whole point of TCAS is to calculate (and avoid) the interception of two flying objects after all…it won’t take a genius to “reverse the polarity” and have it used as a targeting system.

  34. The Mole

    Money better spent elsewhere

    So it'd cost about 20bn to 'upgrade' all the aircrafts to have this peice of equipment which the terrorists (if they really wanted to) could probably work round simply enough, or possibly exploit? I wonder what impact spending 20bn on healthcare, infrastructure, famine reduction, education etc in Africa would have on the terrorist situation?

    Interestingly a couple of years ago there was a big fuss about laser pointers being targeted at pilots to blind the pilots and make them crash ( now they are wanting to do the opposite and shine laser pointers back down on the public!

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