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Kenya missile attack sparks new urgency

The Russian-made SA-7 missile launchers used in the Kenya attack
The Russian-made SA-7 missile launchers used in the Kenya attack

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CNN's Jerrold Kessel has a look at developments in Israel to counteract the vulnerability of commercial jets to missile attacks. (December 3)
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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Last week's attempted downing of an Israeli charter jet in Kenya is prompting the United States and Israel to seek ways to protect airliners against shoulder-fired missile attacks.

Patrick Bar-Avi of Rafael, an Israeli military research and development firm, is developing "Britening" -- a missile-warning system for commercial airlines that automatically senses missiles and sends a light beam to deflect them from the plane.

"A missile-warning system detects and tracks the threat," he said. "Then we direct through it a light beam, a hot light beam, that directs the threat from hitting the target. It does all of that in a split-second."

Bar-Avi said it isn't hard to target commercial planes during takeoff and landing, the most dangerous times in any flight.

"Thirty kilometers away from where we're standing, the plane is still vulnerable, very vulnerable," Bar-Avi told CNN in an interview at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel.

"Almost like sitting ducks. Those aircraft are very slow, very bright. All the lights are on. Everyone can [attack them]."

Fighter jets have long been equipped with deflection systems, but those are not applicable to large commercial aircraft. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, researchers refocused what has been a 10-year program to find a way to protect commercial jets.

Bar-Avi said he has been fielding calls since the incident Thursday in which "all the taboos were broken." Rafael has begun a crash program to develop the system within four months. It is being adapted from military helicopters and has not been tested on commercial airliners.

Former F-14 pilot Jack Liles, a military analyst for CNN, doesn't think U.S. airlines will put $5 million anti-missile systems on their aircraft. Aside from the cost, Liles says he doesn't think the systems are practical for civilian airliners.

"There's really no means by which an airline pilot can expect to see this missile being launched, to maneuver his aircraft somehow, deploy flares or something like that," he said.

Sources say terror link obvious

Intelligence sources in the United States and Israel said it is obvious that terrorists are attempting to shoot down aircraft with shoulder-fired missiles.

A statement attributed to al Qaeda claimed responsibility Monday for last Thursday's failed missile attack on the Israeli charter jet as it left Mombasa, Kenya, and the nearly simultaneous suicide bombing of an Israeli-owned resort hotel elsewhere in Mombasa that killed 10 Kenyans and three Israelis. (Full story)

There was still no explanation why the two missiles didn't hit the plane. Israeli officials said the plane was not equipped with a deflecting device.

Liles said the terrorist attack may have failed because shooters were not trained very well and the missiles were probably old and poorly maintained.

He also said there was a possibility that an aircraft could survive a direct hit from a shoulder-fired missile like the ones used in Kenya.

"It's not a large missile. It's not designed to blow up the entire plane. It's just designed to hone in on the actual exhaust tail section of a large engine and explode there -- possibly taking out that single engine, which is a recoverable emergency in some instances."

U.S. officials said Monday that the serial numbers on the Mombasa missile launchers are close to the serial number on a launcher found outside Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia in June after an apparent attempt to bring down a military jet.

Israeli authorities said the serial numbers also are close to those on launchers found outside the airport in Prague, Czech Republic, last year. Israeli and Czech officials said there was a terrorist plan to bring down an El Al jet carrying Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Senators anticipate more terrorist action

The missile attack in Kenya raised speculation in Washington on how safe domestic airlines are from such weapons.

"There are thousands of these surface-to-air missiles around the world," said Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

"You can buy them, and you can transport them. A lot of them are not as accurate as others. But eventually, that's going to be one of the methods for the terrorists to hit." (Full story)

Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York asked homeland security officials Monday to beef up domestic defenses against possible shoulder-fired missile attacks. (Full story)

Clinton sent letters to Tom Ridge, secretary-designate of the Department of Homeland Security, and George Pataki, governor of New York, asking them to take steps to prevent such an attack from succeeding inside the United States or at any of the country's 429 commercial airports.

Transportation Security Administration spokesman Robert Johnson said his agency took up the anti-aircraft problem months ago.

"We work very closely with all other agencies at the federal level and below that are engaged in deterring this new threat," he told The Associated Press. Johnson said the agency alerted federal security directors at all U.S. airports after hearing of the attack in Kenya.

CNN Correspondent Jerrold Kessel and Producer Phil Hirschkorn contributed to this report.



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