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Bill aims to speed airline missile protection

From Mike M. Ahlers
CNN Washington Bureau

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Air Transportation

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Saying it could be years before commercial airliners are equipped to thwart shoulder-fired missiles, three members of Congress introduced a bill Tuesday to stem the proliferation of the weapons and to speed up certification of new protective technology.

The problem of shoulder-fired missiles is "so wide, so deep and so urgent that we have to go on defense and on offense at the same time," said Rep. Steve Israel, D-New York, one of three lawmakers to introduce the legislation.

The bill's other sponsors are Rep. John Mica, R-Florida, and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman and ranking member of the House Aviation subcommittee, respectively.

"Take down one commercial airliner in the West, and you're looking at absolute devastation" of the airline industry, Mica said. "So we're trying to take a different approach, a proactive approach, and move this forward. We can't afford not to."

In January, the Department of Homeland Security awarded contracts to three firms to begin work on systems to protect commercial aircraft from shoulder-fired rockets, which are called manportable air defense systems, or MANPADS.

Research and development for the protective technology is expected to take 18 months, and it likely will take even more time to deploy the systems.

The bill introduced Tuesday has four features:

  • It encourages the president to pursue international treaties and agreements limiting the proliferation of MANPADS.
  • It requires the Federal Aviation Administration to expedite certification of missile defense systems.
  • It encourages the president to continue programs to buy back MANPADS, reducing the global supply.
  • It requires the Department of Homeland Security to report to Congress on vulnerability assessments it is conducting at U.S. airports.
  • DeFazio said MANPADS are "easily concealed, easily smuggled, very inexpensive. And we've got to get ahead of this. We've got to do what we can to prevent their acquisition and usage."

    He said it also is important the FAA not put unnecessary hurdles in the way of swift approval of anti-MANPADS devices.

    Israel said roughly 500,000 shoulder-fired missiles are in the world, more than 100,000 of them in the hands of at least 27 terrorist groups, including al Qaeda.

    While they have never been used in the United States, MANPADS have downed helicopters in Iraq, and one struck a cargo plane near Baghdad in November. The missile punctured the aircraft's wing and started a fire, but the plane landed safely.

    In addition, the cost of retrofitting the nation's 6,800 commercial jetliners with anti-MANPADS devices, or of putting them on new planes remains an issue.

    "I think this is mostly our responsibility," Mica said, "but also it's something that we might require as standard operating equipment on new, large aircraft that would be at risk."

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