Report: Terrorists with MANPADS still a threat to commercial planes

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In the last decade, the international community has reduced some of the threat from small anti-aircraft weapons known as MANPADS, a report from the Federation of American Scientists says.

But thousands of MANPADS--short for man-portable air defense systems--remain on the black market, and it would cost huge amounts of money to render commercial airplanes invulnerable to them.

A MANPADS attack attempt in Kenya in 2002 on an airplane full of tourists bound for Tel Aviv, Israel, prompted new efforts from the U.S. government and others to prevent terrorist attacks using the weapons. Hundreds of thousands of MANPADS were scattered around more than 100 countries, and since 2002, many more from military facilities in Iraq, Libya and Syria have become unaccounted for.

Through international efforts, governments have destroyed 33,000 MANPADS in more than 30 countries since 2002, which the report (.pdf) says is "significant progress."

The Homeland Security Department also sought ideas for systems that could be built into commercial aircraft to thwart attack attempts. Two systems that DHS chose for further development both work by firing a laser at the missile seeker to confuse its trajectory.

Cost is the main problem for the systems. According to the report, it would take an estimated $43 billion to install them on all large commercial passenger aircraft in the United States.

Airports could vastly expand perimeter security, to keep would-be attackers out of close range, but that too would be very expensive. Planes could follow new descent patterns that are less vulnerable to attacks, but they would likely be "harrowing for passengers and would require pilot retraining," according to an FAS overview of the MANPADS threat.

According to FAS, the appeal of MANPADS for terrorists stems from their lethality, portability and low cost. They are also apparently easy to use due to their seeking capability.

For more:
- download the report, "The MANPADS Threat and International Efforts to Address It: Ten Years After Mombasa" (.pdf)
- go to an FAS overview of MANPADS proliferation

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