NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 27, 2005

Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, also known as man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS, threaten commercial aircraft in United States, claims a new study by the Cato Institute.

Charles V. Pena, director of defense policy studies at Cato, says MANPADS are available on the black market for as little as $5,000 and more than two dozen terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda, are believed to possess such weapons.

According to one estimate, total economic loss resulting from an attack could be as high as $70 billion. Therefore, Pena says, the U.S. government should take advantage of available technology currently used on military aircraft to protect the U.S. commercial aircraft fleet. Consider:

  • The cost to outfit all 6,800 commercial aircraft with advanced laser-jamming infrared countermeasures against MANPADS is estimated at $11 billion plus $2.1 billion in recurring annual operating costs.
  • In 2004, Citizens Against Government Waste documented at total of $22.9 billion in federal pork-barrel spending -- more than twice the amount needed to procure MANPADS countermeasures.
  • By canceling weapon systems Pena considers unnecessary, such as the F-22, F/A-18E/F, and V-22 jet fighters, and the Virginia-class submarine, the Department of Defense would save $15 to $30 billion.

However, a RAND Corporation study concluded that spending $11 billion (plus annual operating costs) to outfit the commercial airline fleet with defensive countermeasures was too expensive.

True, countermeasures will not create a perfect defense against MANPADS and they will not prevent terrorist from using other means to attack aircraft or other targets. But, Pena says, countermeasures raise the cost of attacks and lower the likelihood of success and thus may deter terrorists from using shoulder-fired missiles against aircraft.

Source: Charles V. Pe'a, "Flying the Unfriendly Skies: Defending Against the Threat of Shoulder-Fired Missiles," Cato Institute, Policy Analysis No. 541, April 19, 2005.

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