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Thursday, March 20

Portable missiles pose danger to U.S. airplanes, House members learn

By Carl Weiser | GNS

WASHINGTON - After what he said was a sobering hearing Thursday on the prospect of terrorists shooting down a passenger plane with shoulder-fired missiles, the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee declared: "The threat is real."

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said he wanted legislation passed as soon as possible to help airlines with the threat and said that as a national security issue the government, not the industry, should foot the bill.

The issue is so sensitive the hearing was closed to the press and public. Some testimony was released, but none from CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency experts.

James Loy, head of the Transportation Security Administration, told the committee that the administration was taking "an aggressive approach" to the problem - though most of those efforts, at least in his public testimony, consisted of reports, task forces, studies, and guidelines.

He stressed he had no specific, credible evidence of attacks being planned against commercial planes in the United States.

"It?s a legitimate concern of the members of Congress, and it?s something that we?ve been working internally as well," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said Thursday.

Shoulder-fired missiles number at least 500,000 around the world, and at least 27 terrorist or guerilla groups possess them, according to Jane?s Intelligence Report.

The missiles can be set up and fired in a few minutes and have a range of several miles; they seek out the heat of jet engines. In November, suspected al-Qaida members fired one at an Israeli passenger plane in Kenya. It narrowly missed.

Officials at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport declined to discuss the potential problem, referring questions to the TSA. Delta Air Lines, which operates a hub there, also referred questions to the TSA.

"The government says don?t talk about security, and we?re not," airport spokesman Ted Bushelman said. "We will do whatever it takes to make this one of the safest airports in the country."

Continental Airlines operates a hub from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, and America West decided last month to cut Port Columbus International Airport as its eastern hub beginning next month.

Military aircraft can defend themselves against missiles with small decoy flares or decoy targets, jamming devices that confuse the missile, even lasers.

Adding that to commercial planes could cost $1 million to $2 million per plane, but the cost is worth it, Mica said.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., have introduced a bill to require anti-missile technology on all commercial jets by the end of this year, with taxpayers picking up the estimated $10 billion tab.

"It?s expensive, but I believe it is a justified expense," Israel said.

Mica didn?t endorse a specific bill or technology. He said he came into the hearing skeptical about a need for government action but came out convinced of it.

"What we saw was pretty sobering," he said. "We can?t afford to not act."

(Contributing: Ledyard King, GNS)

Missile facts

- Number: Estimated 500,000 to 700,000 anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles worldwide, generally known as MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems.)

- Types: Best known are American-made Stingers and Soviet-style SA-7s as well as an increasing number of Chinese models.

- Specifications: About 5 feet long; can be broken down for easy transport. Can be reassembled in less than three minutes.

- Range: 3-to-5 miles. Can be fired on a plane from as far as 30 miles from an airport.

- Cost: Most are $25,000 to $80,000, but some are available on the black market for $5,000.

- Record: Since 1978, there have been 35 attempts to shoot down civilian planes with 24 shot down and more than 500 people killed. Most were smaller, propeller-type planes, and most were in war-torn areas.

Source: House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Transportation Security Administration.