NEW YORK (Reuters) – Amid fears that terrorists have obtained shoulder-held missiles, U.S. commercial airliners could soon be equipped with anti-missile technology similar to systems being installed in Israeli planes. “We hope to have FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) approval in three to six months, then we can go ahead,” said Israel Livnat, president of Elta Systems Ltd., a unit of state-controlled Israel Aircraft Industries.
Livnat told Reuters the system was a joint effort by Elta and U.S. defence company Raytheon Co.. “We developed the radar and Raytheon developed the decoy system.”
Raytheon confirmed it is working with Elta in pursuit of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s program to equip commercial aircraft with systems to deflect missiles fired during take-off or landing.
The Raytheon/Elta system, dubbed “SafeFlight” combines Elta’s missile approach warning system with Raytheon’s countermeasure dispensing system. It operates independently, requires no pilot action or training, involves minimal maintenance, and is invisible from air or ground locations.
In operation, SafeFlight will detect an incoming missile “within milliseconds” and divert it from the targeted aircraft, said Livnat, who was attending an Israeli high-tech and venture capital conference in New York.
“The missile threat is there,” Livnat told Reuters after a session on homeland security technologies. He said the missiles were leftovers from the Muslim guerrilla war against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Thousands of shoulder-held missiles were supplied to the rebels by Washington and also were captured from the Soviets by the mujahideen guerrillas.
Elta’s missile warning system, part of its “Flight Guard” system is already in operation on 150 military aircraft. It was recently selected by the Israel Ministry of Transportation to outfit Israel’s commercial airliners.
Just last week, an El Al flight to Los Angeles, was diverted twice over Canada amid security concerns. Although there were no details, there was speculation it was because of a missile threat. Last year, a missile was fired at another Israeli airliner taking off from east Africa, but missed.
During the homeland security session, Israeli companies presented their anti-terrorist products to take advantage of a heightened concern in the United States following the September 11, 2001 attacks and the Iraq War.
They include advanced intelligence and border control systems, radar imaging, surveillance drones, airport security screening and thermal sensors to detect potential terrorists. Some companies also specialise in sophisticated money-laundering detection techniques to expose terrorist financing.
“Israel is the U.S. crystal ball for predicting future terrorist attacks, such as suicide bombers, before they reach here,” said John Reingruber, a consultant, who was formerly the Pentagon’s deputy director for technology programs.
He said that Israel was a world leader in such areas as fingerprint technology by virtue of its focus on developing operational systems to meet immediate security concerns.
“The advantage of dealing with Israeli industry tends to pursue practical solutions,” Reingruber told the meeting.
Another consultant, Mark Holman, who previously worked in the White House office of homeland security, said the Israeli experience in fighting terrorism was germane to Washington’s newly formed Department of Homeland Security.
“It wants products that are proven and deliverable and that’s what Israeli companies can do, with their experience in the field.”
Brig-Gen. Aharon Beth-Halachmi, a former director general of the Israeli defence Ministry, told participants that Israel’s expertise was born out of necessity after French President Charles de Gaulle banned arms exports to the country in 1967.
“We have learned to develop basic capabilities from scratch and to be less dependent on others.”