Defense planners for years have feared that a terrorist could take cover near an airport and fire a shoulder-launched missile at a departing or incoming flight, causing mass casualties and crippling the U.S. airline industry.
Now, homeland security officials have listed Las Vegas as one of six cities with “airports of interest” for studying how a “Star Wars” weapons system could be used by unmanned spy planes to thwart such attacks on jetliners.
The idea is to zap the heat-seeking missiles with a directed-energy weapon such as a high-powered laser or microwave system, or throw them off-course with low-energy lasers carried by aircraft like a modified, unmanned Predator, said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a military information Web site.
A low-powered laser shining in the path of a missile would fool its sensors and divert it from the target, he explained in a telephone interview last week about what Homeland Security officials have dubbed Project Chloe, named after a character in the television program, “24.”
Not out of the realm of possible countermeasures, he said, is to use a missile fired from a drone like the Predator to intercept a shoulder-launched missile.
The risk of wayward interceptor missiles striking people, homes and businesses would have to be weighed against the prospect of a terrorist toting an infrared, heat-seeking Stinger missile that could knock a passenger jet from the sky over the same urban area, Pike said.
“There are many ways of doing it, but that’s what they’re going to be studying,” he said about the Project Chloe countermeasure analysis.
“I think the thing that is intriguing about it is that they recognize that aircraft are vulnerable to shoulder-fired missiles when they are close to airports but not otherwise,” Pike said. “The problem is not defending airplanes. The problem is defending airplanes taking off or landing at airports.”
Final proposals for the project are due Friday, with selections for contractors on June 29 and contracts awarded Aug. 17.
The Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate expects to award at least one contract for the project, with about $11 million likely to be available for an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, manufacturer.
Front-runners include General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc., producer of remotely piloted Predator spy planes, including the MQ-1 Predator, and its faster, higher-flying big brother, the MQ-9 Reaper.
Kimberly Kasitz, a spokeswoman for General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, said, “Our aircraft may be used (for Project Chloe), but we as a company are not getting directly involved in this.”
The Reaper was described as “a Predator on steroids,” by Lt. Col. Jonathan Greene, commander of the 42nd Attack Squadron, when the squadron was activated in November at Creech Air Force Base, 45 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
The Department of Homeland Security already has one Reaper it uses for border patrol in Arizona. It can reach an altitude of 50,000 feet while not armed with bombs or missiles, and can loiter over an area for 24 hours.
Another candidate company is Northrop Grumman Corp., maker of the RQ-4 Global Hawk, which at more than 450 mph is the fastest flying UAV and can reach an altitude of 65,000 feet.
Jim Hart, Northrop Grumman’s spokesman in El Segundo, Calif., said his company “definitely has responded” to the call for Project Chloe proposals. “That’s all I can say,” he said Thursday.
Another possible candidate is Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co., pioneering architect of the nation’s Stealth aircraft out of Palmdale, Calif.
“We are very much aware of Project Chloe and … are interested in the opportunity, and are evaluating all our options at this point. I’m sorry I can’t be more specific due to the ongoing competition,” Lockheed spokesman Craig Quigley said in an e-mail Friday.
AIRPORTS OF INTEREST
Along with Las Vegas, the Department of Homeland Security identified cities with “airports of interest” as Denver, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., San Diego and Washington. D.C.
A broad Homeland Security Department announcement in late March described how countermeasure drones would loiter at more than 50,000 feet over an airport’s approach and take-off space and use high-tech equipment and cameras to spot heat-seeking missiles launched by so-called, “man-portable air defense systems.”
The announcement said countermeasures must be designed to protect airspace “bounded by the threat envelope,” defined as a three-mile radius around an aircraft operating at or below 18,000 feet in standard approach and departure corridors.
Of 517 commercial service airports in the United States, Project Chloe will evaluate normal activity at the 35 that account for about 70 percent of commercial operations.
Chris Kelly, Department of Homeland Security spokesman for science and technology, said Thursday the six airports of interest mentioned in the announcement “are sort of representative of airports that industry would have to think about as we create systems. This is kind of a setup where this unmanned aerial vehicle would have to fly over.”
“We’re in the process of pulling together this technology and testing it in an operational environment to see how it works in an extended period of time,” Kelly said.
For the next few years, testing the countermeasure concept will not involve UAVs flying over McCarran International Airport or any of the others. It will probably be at least a decade, in Pike’s view, before a countermeasure system would be workable.
Kelly said testing might be done at a Navy range at Patuxent River, Md.
McCarran officials said no federal agency has contacted the Clark County Department of Aviation to discuss the Project Chloe anti-missile defense system.
Aviation Department Deputy Director Rosemary Vassiliadis said, however, that her department “generally supports efforts to develop new technologies that could maintain or potentially improve the safety of our nation’s commercial aviation system.”
“At the moment, our primary concern in Washington remains in securing the necessary federal funding to ensure that a full complement of Transportation Security Administration screeners is available” to handle the growing demand at the airport’s checkpoints, she said.
Kelly said Raytheon Systems Co. in Tucson, Ariz., is evaluating the suitability of using a high-powered microwave countermeasure system as part of a combined $7.5 million contract that’s been distributed to three companies.
The other two are Northrop Grumman Space Technology Corp., in Redondo Beach, Calif., which is evaluating the suitability of a high-energy laser countermeasure; and L-3 Communications AVISYS Corp. in Austin, Texas, tasked with evaluating, modifying and testing a detection system he described as a “pulsed Doppler radar missile warning receiver.”
Pike said a low-powered laser built with existing technology might be more cost-effective than developing a directed-energy laser weapon that could be fired from a ground station and reflected off a drone’s mirror to the target to blow it up. Although a high-energy laser would be more costly, it also would be more effective at destroying a missile in flight.
“That way is probably the most ambitious and complicated,” Pike said about a directed-energy laser. “The simplest is to take the countermeasure systems they were going to put on passenger planes and just put it on the UAV.”
The short list of airports includes Washington’s Reagan National, named after the president who more than 20 years ago advocated a space defense plan that spurred exploration and development of directed-energy Star Wars technology by scientists at national weapons laboratories.
Reagan envisioned an umbrella of protection through weapons designed to defeat nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.
McCarran, the sixth busiest airport in the United States, is on the list because of its concentration of passenger jet traffic, not because the skies of Southern Nevada historically have been proving grounds for unmanned aerial vehicle technology.
Nellis Air Force Base and Creech Air Force Base have been the homes of the nation’s remotely piloted Predator fleet and the ground stations that control them.
It was over the Nellis range near the auxiliary airfield at Indian Springs in February 2001 when the Air Force demonstrated that a laser-guided Hellfire missile fired from a Predator could knock the tracks off an Army tank from three miles away and at a 2,000-foot altitude.
With the need for such counterterrorism weapons in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Predator has become the aerial platform of high demand by battlefield commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Controlled by pilots and sensor operators in ground stations thousands of miles away, the Predator has proven to be an asset to the military and the U.S. intelligence community in finding, tracking and knocking out targets.
Likewise, the Global Hawk in a year’s span gave commanders in Afghanistan more than 15,000 near-real-time, high-resolution images. By 2004, the Global Hawk had flown more than 50 missions and 1,000 combat hours, according to the Air Force’s Web site.
Much of the success of drones in defeating shoulder-launched missiles, Pike said, will lie in their ability to detect them and distinguish them from other moving heat signatures, such as fireworks or welding torches.
A shoulder-launched missile signature will be “a lot bigger and moving a lot faster and is going to be on more or less a straight line trajectory.”
Detection would require medium-resolution, near-real-time video and infrared cameras instead of the narrow-field, high-resolution cameras on today’s combat Predators that are akin to looking down from the sky through a straw.
Pike noted that the window for detecting and knocking out a missile heading for an airliner would have to be a matter of seconds, considering the short distances involved.
Detectors “can get themselves confused with sun glinting off the water or someone using welding or cutting torches.”
“If something like a welding torch is moving at 1,000 miles per hour, you’ve got a problem,” Pike said.
SHOULDERING THE COST
Project Chloe evolved as Homeland Security’s solution to the airline industry’s reluctance to equip commercial jets with expensive, high-maintenance laser and missile detection systems, said Kelly, the agency’s science and technology spokesman.
“We spent over $250 million so far working on laser-based systems on (commercial) aircraft,” he said Thursday. “The civilian airline industry is not warm yet to placing laser systems on their aircraft.”
Kelly said commercial aircraft laser systems cost about $1 million apiece. They work “but they have to work over an extended period of time.”
To be cost-effective for the airlines, they would have to go without intensive maintenance for 3,000 hours or 4,000 hours of flying time, not 300 hours or 400 hours, he said.
Pike anticipates the Department of Homeland Security will take years to have a countermeasure system in place based on the government’s pace in procuring hardware.
“It typically takes them at least three years to select a contractor, if they’re in a hurry,” he said.
The big question is: “Who’s going to pay for it?” Pike said.
“The airlines don’t want to pay for it. The airport operators don’t want to pay for it because they say this is a security problem rather than a transportation problem.
“And the government doesn’t want to have to pay to protect airlines. The next thing is shopping centers will want the government to pay for rent-a-cops,” Pike said.
“Everybody’s hoping we can just keep on studying this problem. Then when airplanes get shot down they can say, ‘We were working on it.’ “
But Kelly countered the notion that his agency is content with merely “working on it.”
“The Department of Homeland Security takes the threat of a MANPAD (Man-Portable Air Defense System) attack very seriously and is working to come up with a solution to offer the government and the flying public to be better protected,” Kelly said.
He wouldn’t speculate what the cost of putting a system in place at one airport would be.
“We don’t know. Our goal is not to take a look at the cost. … This is a demonstration project that hasn’t been formally approved. This is a game-changing program that is like hitting a home run, like coming to bat as a rookie and hitting a home run off (New York Yankees pitcher) Roger Clemens.”