Defending Aircraft In Flight From Surface To Air Missiles … are we doing enough?

Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) have been used in attacks on more than fifty civilian aircraft, killing more than 1,000 people since 1973.  Presently the U.S. Department of Homeland Security knows of approximately two dozen terrorist organizations that posses SAM and MANPADS weapons.  The threat of terrorist and government-separatist groups that posses these weapons is so severe that former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell stated that “No threat is more serious to aviation than MANPADS” during the 2003 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum.

Now as the world reels from the news of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down by a BUK surface to air missile system just outside Hrabove, Donetsk Oblast in Ukraine, killing 298 people on board, the question once again returns to the forefront of how can we protect aircraft in flight.

While some airports in high risk areas have reduced the threat of surface to air attacks by implementing steep departures and continually adjusting departure and approach patterns, aircraft at cruising altitude need to be potentially protected in other ways, and these ways are complex and not just expensive to implement, but also expensive in terms of per-flight-hour operating costs.

In the United States three major airlines have previously participated in missile counter measure tests on board their aircraft, initially the tests began with the BAE JetEye Infrared Missile Defense Systems being installed on Federal Express and ABX, aircraft, then on the 16th of July 2008 American Airlines began testing the BAE JetEye system installed on a Boeing 767-223.

The evaluation of the BAE JetEye system and Northrop Grumman Guardian systems were designed to use a directional laser to identify and divert an inbound missile away from the aircraft.   However with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) spending US$150,000,000 for the Counter-Man-Portable Air Defense System (C-MANPADS) test evaluation the BAE JetEye system was only effective for heat seeking missiles and was removed from all test aircraft in 2009 and the Northrop Grumman Guardian system was never installed on a commercial airliner.

Ultimately neither the BAE JetEye system nor Northrop Grumman Guardian systems met critical specifications. While the DHS publicly stated that the BAE JetEye system exceeded all test goals, the system never achieved the base requirement of 3,000 operational hours between failures, and neither system met basic cost requirements of not exceeding US$350 per operational flight hour.

As BAE and Northrop Grumman continue to work on their C-MANPADS systems for commercial airliners, Israeli defense technology company Elbit Systems has begun to push commercial aircraft security in new directions with the development of the SkyShield System.  SkyShield is a Commercial Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures (C-MUSIC) system, deigned to defend airliners again surface to air missiles.

The Elbit SkyShield system is passive and employs a radar missile approach warning system (MAWS), in conjunction with a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) missile-tracking camera and both infrared and ultra-violet sensors.   The SkyShield system is housed in a pod just forward of the rear tail section below the aircraft and is small enough for even regional aircraft. Once the SkyShield detects in inbound missile it jams the missiles seeker through a directional laser, diverting the missile away from the aircraft using newer technology and a wider array of options than the BAE or Northrop Grumman systems.

The actual costs of the Elbit SkyShield are not yet released while it undergoes testing installed on an El Al Boeing 737-858 (4X-EKA), and it has not yet been formally evaluated outside of Israel.

While the threats to aviation security have remained relatively the same over the past 40 years, the technology behind those threats has evolved.   Aviation security is not just what we see at the airport, there are real threats in the skies, while they are uncommon, when the threats come to light it is tool late.

Have we become complacent?  Is it OK for organizations such as the DHS’s Science and Technology Directorate to spend more than US$150,000,000 on an airborne defense system for airliners only to come up with no viable solution?     What is the cost benefit of enabling aircraft to defend themselves in the skies … and given the estimated US$600,000 hardware cost of an airborne missile defense system in relation the cost of a new jet airliner, is cost benefit even really a factor for long haul aircraft or aircraft operating in areas that are more likely to pose a threat to aviation safety and security?

Where do we go from here?  It’s a question I wish I had an answer for.

Happy Flying!



  1. Thank you for this post. The tragedy did make me wonder if such defensive mechanism is available on commercial flights. It also reminds me of a scene in “Air Force One”, where the pilot released some sort of object to distract/divert the incoming missile aimed at the plane.

  2. Kai,

    Military aircraft have had countermeasures of various types for 45+ years. Flares, now lasers as well as flares. Some private jets have had counter measures for some time as well.

    Happy Flying!


  3. Steve,

    The issue that seems to be ignored is the fact that the schmuck
    pilot was flying over a war zone where other aircraft had been
    downed in recent days.

    What’s the chance of El-Al committing such an insane error?

  4. Jay,

    The pilot was flying an approved flight plan, numerous other commercial aircraft where in the airspace at the time and following MH17 being shot down, no NOTAMS were in place. Your understanding of the situation is significantly flawed. There was no insane error.

    Happy Flying!


  5. Steve,

    May I refer you to the Daily Mail, where the inference of misfeasance
    of Airlines flying in that zone is clearly set forth.
    They clearly need your insight and expert analysis.

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