The Threat No One Wants to Discuss

Author’s Update: In the first week of 2022, Federal Express Federal Express announced that it was applying to the FAA to allow it to equip its cargo airplanes with DIRCM (directed infrared countermeasures) systems to protect its airplanes. Initially, FedEx is planning to equip its smaller airplanes, but ultimately, if approved, it may install them on its entire fleet. What follows is an explanation of the threat to commercial aircraft all over the world that few in the U.S. government wishes to discuss publicly. This piece was originally written in 2015 when the first draft of Failure to Fire was completed. The novel will be released on February 2nd, 2022.


RPGs, cyber warfare, dirty nukes, chemical weapons and IEDS in the hands of terrorists get all the publicity. Few if anyone in government or the media or the intelligence community talk about the one weapon that will, for a short time, bring commercial air travel in any country to a screeching halt.

The weapon is not a virus in the global air traffic control system, nor a hacker who gains control of the airplane from his laptop in the passenger compartment. The weapon is relatively simple to manufacture and costs less than $50,000 (in 2008 dollars) to make. Hundreds of thousands of them sitting in arsenals all over the world.

The weapon is known by the acronym MANPADS which stands for Man Portable Air Defense System. MANPADS are shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and their portability and lethality make them a major threat to anything that flies.

MANPADS are already in the hands of terrorists. In 2002, two missiles were fired at an Israeli airliner.

In 2003, a DHL cargo plane approaching Baghdad International Airport was hit by a shoulder-fired missile. The airplane landed but was a total loss.

On March 23rd, 2007, a Transaviaexport Iluyshin 76D was shot down. Everyone on board was killed.

In January 2013, the U.S. Navy boarded a dhow that left a Yemeni port controlled by Iranian backed Houthi rebels. They found ten Chinese versions of the SA-16 and ten Russian-made SA-7s plus tons of other weapons.

Since 1975, there have been forty documented uses of MANPADS against civilian aircraft. See for more details.

MANPADS Are Made By Our Friends and Enemies

MANPADS come in a variety of flavors. The U.S. made Stinger was used by Fedayeen against the Soviets in the ’80s in Afghanistan to bring down 269 aircraft. The Soviets/Russians build the Strela (known by their NATO names SA-7 Grail, SA-14 Gremlin) and the Igla series (SA-16 Gimlet, SA-18 Grouse and SA-24 Grinch) which also have had success on the battlefield.

The United Kingdom makes the Starburst and the Starstreak. France makes the Mistral. Many other countries have designed their own by combining elements of French, Russian/Soviet, U.K, U.S. missiles to give their ground troops protection against low flying aircraft and helicopters.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security formed the Counter-MANPADs Program Office to evaluate the threat and develop counter measures. On March 30th, 2010, the office reported to Congress on the threat, viable countermeasures and the cost and timeline to deploy them on the U.S. airline and air cargo fleet. A redacted version of the report from DHS Science and Technology Directorate is available through this link—

Before this report was issued, the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology division announced on January 6th, 2004, that teams led by BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and United Technologies were selected to develop a plan and test prototypes to help determine whether a viable technology exists that could be deployed to address the potential threat that MAN- Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) pose to commercial aircraft.

The threat is so significant that in later in 2004, the U.S. Department of Homeland stated some nations do a better job than others in protecting their inventory of MANPADS. How many are in the hands of terrorist organizations is not available through open sources.

The CIA, Mi-5, and the Russian FSB may know, but the public at large does not. Nor does the flying public understand the serious threat they pose.

A typical MANPADS team consists of a spotter and a shooter. The spotter searches for and identifies the target. The shooter lifts the MANPADS that, depending on the make and model, weighs between thirty-nine and forty pounds onto his shoulder and points the launching tube in the direction of the target. A built-in detection system locks onto an airborne heat source within a bubble that could be up to five miles away and up to about eight to 10,000 feet.

Once the missile is inside the launcher tube is “told where to go” by its seeker, the user pulls the trigger, compressed gas pushes the missile out of the tube, the missile’s motor ignites and flies toward the target. The shooter’s role is done.

In the air, the missile’s seeker stays locked onto the heat source—either the airplane’s structure warmed by friction created by passing through the air or the exhaust of the engines. MANPADS are fast and close in on their targets at between 1,300 miles per hour (Strela and Igla series), 1,600 miles per hour (Stinger) or 2,700 miles per hour (Starstreak).

The missiles have two types of warheads—blast fragmentation (think of a shotgun) and a contact or impact fuse. The blast fragmentation warhead is set off when the missile’s proximity fuse says the weapon is close to the target. The shrapnel shreds the target causing an engine to fail catastrophically or a structural failure of the wing or fuselage.

Or, if the missile has an impact or contact fuse, when missile slams into the airplane, its three to six pounds of explosive is enough to bring down or severely damage an airplane or a helicopter.

Countermeasures Work, Are Available and Are Affordable

To counter the MANPADS threat, most, if not all military aircraft have countermeasure systems that automatically detect and then decoy infrared missiles. Some systems use a combination of flares and/or sophisticated sets of mirrors to confuse the missile seeker and cause the weapon to miss. Other systems include lasers that disable the seeker and/or destroy the on-rushing weapon.

Several companies—BAE, Elbit, ITT, Northrop Grumman, and Selex ES—make systems designed specifically to counter the MANPADS threat. Several of these manufacturers have demonstrated these systems can be economically installed on business jets, cargo planes and airliners of all sizes. A U.S. government supported program back in March of 2007 installed DIRCM systems on 11 FedEx cargo planes.

At the time, Northrop Grumman told the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, that to install and test a directed infrared countermeasures system on an airliner would cost about $1.9M/ airplane based on a fleet of 300 airplanes. Costs would drop to $1.0 million/plane for a fleet of 1,000!

Operation and maintenance cost, according to the Northrop Grumman study, would be approximately $26.50 per flight hour for 300 aircraft. For a typical three-hour flight carrying 150 passengers, this comes to $.53/per passenger. Installation on the larger airplanes used for transoceanic flights would cost even less per passenger.

If 1,000 airplanes were equipped, the cost/flight hour would drop to below $13 per flight hour, or $.26 cents per passenger on a 150-passenger airliner that needs three hours to go from airport to airport.

Northrop Grumman based its installation on the configuration now in use on Boeing’s C-17 aircraft. The C-17 configuration is a conformal “canoe” mounted on the belly of a commercial aircraft. At the time of the report, Northrop Grumman stated the system could be ready for deployment in as little as 28 months. This assumes nine months to get FAA certification and the remaining time for installation and testing.

In 2019, American Airlines had almost 900 plus airplanes in its fleet and if you include Delta, United and Southwest the total is more than 3,000. Installation, system, and maintenance costs would also drop dramatically if just these four airlines started installed DIRCM systems on all their planes.

As noted above, on a per flight basis, the cost is minimal.

Weight? You’ve got to be kidding. For large planes, installed DIRCM systems weigh, including the wiring, sensor, cockpit display, less than 500 pounds. On a Boeing 737-800 with a maximum takeoff weight of 174,200 pounds, a DIRCM system is the equivalent two 170-pound passengers and their bags.

The payouts to families and crew members that would result if an airliner were shot down by a MANPADS with 150 people on board would be far more than the cost of the DIRCM system. The money would have been better served by equipping some or all the airline’s fleet. From a risk perspective, not equipping the commercial airline fleet just doesn’t make commercial sense.

The truth is that the systems are practical, feasible and can be installed on airliners. El Al has installed Elbit’s Music system on all its planes. As a firm, they decided they didn’t want to take the risk.

Yet, the Counter-MANPADs Program Office study concluded that DIRCM systems weren’t economically viable to install systems on U.S. airliners. Their reason was that the systems didn’t meet the study’s standards for reliability. Where was the funding to figure out what needed to be done to meet the reliability standards, whatever they were at the time? DIRCM Systems are widely deployed on military aircraft all over the world and they are reliable. More important, they are effective.

No matter what the study found, the MANPADS threat is real. MANPADS are available on the black market and are cheap. Depending on the age of the weapon and its condition, some public sources say they can be bought for less than $10,000.

The reality is that no government or airline wants to state publicly that MANPADs are a serious threat to civil aviation. They are afraid the danger will scare away potential passengers.

This approach will continue until an airliner drops from the sky and the handwringing and recriminations begin. The spinmeisters will try to convince us that no countermeasure system is perfect or that the attack is an isolated instance. Not true. MANPADS are out there and it is only a matter of time before one brings down an airliner.

DIRCM systems are a cost-effective deterrent and they work because they prove themselves every day in the skies over Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Why not start installing them on commercial planes now rather than on some crash program after the fact?

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