Big Planes, Small Missiles

Nahum, who is a member of the crew of an F-16 fighter plane in the Israel Air Force (IAF) - until a few years ago in the career army, and now in the reserves - belongs to the generation that experienced a change in the IAF's approach to missions and dangers.

Nahum, who is a member of the crew of an F-16 fighter plane in the Israel Air Force (IAF) - until a few years ago in the career army, and now in the reserves - belongs to the generation that experienced a change in the IAF's approach to missions and dangers. The idea is fewer air battles and more air-to-surface combat, because the enemy pilots were beaten and tended to forgo aerial encounters, leaving in the fray the surface- to-air missile (SAM) batteries of their armies.

Nahum was drafted in the interim period, following the failure against the SAMs in the Yom Kippur War and before the implementation of new methods, which were improved at the end of the 1970s and in the early `80s. He took part in operational sorties in which missiles were fired at his aircraft and in attacks on the Syrians' SAM system in the Lebanese Bekaa in June 1982. The missiles pursued him in his civilian occupation as an engineer in the Elta section of Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), where he is currently engaged in upgrading systems to protect passenger planes from shoulder-launched rockets.

The firing of a pair of Strella missiles at an Arkia Airlines' Boeing aircraft as it was taking off from Mombasa airport last month focused attention on the issue of the small missiles and the big planes. The systems for warning against a missile that is approaching a passenger plane and for enabling it to take evasive action without human intervention were developed two decades ago. Their models were named "Hora Dance" and, in some cases, were given the name of a bird and of a mythological creature. However, they were not mass-produced because the missile threat failed to materialize.

Next week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is scheduled to lead a discussion with the participation of representatives from the Defense Ministry, the Shin Bet security service, the IAF, the Civil Aviation Authority, the anti-terrorism unit in the National Security Council and the Transportation Ministry. Preliminary internal meetings have already been held in the Shin Bet with the participation of the organization's chief, Avi Dichter, the head of the Protection Branch ("D.," whose name cannot be published) and a representative of the Technology Branch; in the Defense Ministry, with the participation of the director-general, Amos Yaron, and the head of the research, development and infrastructure organization directorate, Shmuel Keren; and in the defense industries, at the initiative of and cooperation between the CEOs of Elta and Israel Military Industries, Yisrael Livnat and Ehud Ganani.

A variety of proposals, some of them fairly bizarre, are flowing to defense personnel. One of them, submitted by an Israeli company, would install a manned system to disrupt missiles in every passenger plane - so every flight, in addition to pilots, stewards and security personnel, would also have an anti-missile fighter.

Not all the proposals are clumsy or futuristic. In one case, it is mainly money that separates the shelf from the plane (and also the time required to install the systems - between a week and two weeks - during which period the plane would be grounded). In the 1960s, when the Israel Defense Forces was locked in a dispute with the Defense Ministry over an air- and armor-based army (the chief of staff, Yitzhak Rabin) or surface-to-surface missiles (the deputy defense minister, Shimon Peres), the slogan "Not one mil for a missile" was bandied about, referring to an obsolete coin worth a thousandth of a pound at the time. These days you need not a mil but a million to do the missile job, multiplied by the 40 or so aircraft of the Israeli airlines - $40 million, which is less than NIS 200 million.

No governmental agency is willing to donate that amount of money from its budget. Everyone agrees that protecting planes is essential, not to say worthwhile, but at someone else's expense. Maybe they're waiting for an American "deliverer" who will be ready to allocate this sum from the grant for the war against terrorism, $200 million, which the administration froze, but that Congress is willing to give. If Israel had established its system of fences and obstacles against terrorism from the territories on the 1967 Green Line, and not east of it, the Americans would have pitched in to underwrite that ground defense. But the General Staff did not dare ask them to donate funds for building in the territories, with its connotations of occupation.

No controversy surrounds the concept of air defense, especially if the U.S. administration desires to assist in thwarting a mass attack against Israel in order to be spared the guaranteed escalation in the form of the reaction to the attack. However, American airlines, which operate thousands of planes, or the Boeing corporation, are liable to be upset that they were denied aid that was made available to foreigners.

If IAI had had extra money in the past few years to invest in a product for which there is as yet no demand, the "Flight Guard" system would now be available to everyone. The money is needed for licensing in the federal aviation authority. Every type of aircraft - for example, each of those in the Boeing "700" series (from 707 to 777, with the exception of 717) - requires a separate, and expensive, license. This expense becomes part of the cost of the system when there are buyers, but a business that is fighting for its profits will hesitate to allocate it before it has concrete orders from buyers.

The Americans have a strange but consistent approach: They are suspicious of pilots. Their opposition to systems that thwart missiles as per the decision of the air crew during liftoff or landing, resembles their opposition to arming pilots with pistols as defense against would-be hijackers. Israelis find it difficult to understand the logic that sees the pilot as a risk to plane and passengers, as do members of the four air commands of the U.S. armed forces (from the air, sea and land branches, and the Marine Corps).

One of them, Dr. Dennis McLain, currently head of the department for security matters and computerized products for military use at Sun Microsystems, flew a transporter in the 1973 airlift to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This week, after speaking at a conference on military computerization and presenting his company's solution for processing intelligence, command and control data in the communications networks of the General Staff and the combatant level, McLain relaxed in one of the top floors of a Tel Aviv hotel, opposite the shoreline and the landing path of passenger planes coming into Israel.

The U.S. approach, he said, reflects the increase in the number of civilian pilots who lack any military background, since the draft was abolished in the United States about 30 years ago. During his years in the transporter command, McLain was armed with a personal pistol; the nuclear bombs he sometimes carried in the back of the aircraft from one base to another was somewhat more dangerous. Now the thousands of pilots who enter civilian life every year after completing their service in the U.S. military are not enough to sate the hunger of the passenger airlines. New pilots, in some cases only two years after getting their license, and with very little air time, are put in charge of civilian planes. The authorities do not trust them the way El Al and Arkia trust former IAF pilots (who, in fact, undergo a security check before being hired as civilian pilots).

The American suspiciousness might explain the policy of the open door to the cockpit until September 11, 2001 (a policy that still exists in many European airlines). It wasn't a matter of complacency, but one more way to supervise the pilot and bring him under control if he suddenly went haywire - though it's not clear who was supposed to do the job, as there were no security guards on the planes.

Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings (Democrat of South Carolina), who is against arming pilots, quotes a conversation with "the chief pilot of El Al," who recommended locking the cockpit from liftoff until landing, with "no one entering or leaving, even if my wife is behind the door and screaming that she is being attacked." This would prevent hijacking and crashing into skyscrapers - but not being hit by a missile.

Protective systems against shoulder-fired missiles were installed in military aircraft 20 years ago or more. These systems do not require civil licensing, as in theory the planes involved make use of military air bases. In practice, though, as one can see with every landing of an American military aircraft at Ben-Gurion International Airport, their pilots scatter flares to deflect missiles whether or not this is needed, just to be on the safe side - a tactic that would certainly outrage the chiefs at Kennedy Airport if they spotted civilian planes doing that. The civilian authorities are afraid the flares will hit other planes, or the runway, or fuel tanks.

The licensing process is supposed to dispel such fears: The Flight Guard system sends burning gases - hotter than the heat of the engines - into the air and thus deflects missiles from the plane which extinguish themselves like match heads within a few seconds and no more than dozens of meters of flight time.

Until September 2001, the world aviation industry, which is fighting losses to the point of bankruptcies, neglected investments in protection. At its initiative, IAI (Elta, the engineering division and Bedek) invested - not enough, not in time, but still more than others - and overcame one of the most bothersome problems: the false alarm. Previously it was enough if someone drove a car at 120 KPH next to the airport to create the impression of a terrifying missile. Now the radar system also demands that the car fly toward the plane before considering it a missile. The number of false alarms decreased to one in every 700 liftoffs and landings - the yearly load of a busy plane.

At least two foreign rulers, one from an African country and the other from Central Asia, installed the system in their planes and use them in their trips abroad, ignoring the policy of the host country. Another 150 systems were installed in transporters of the air forces in Germany and Holland, in the executive jets of a large American company and in service helicopters of the IAF, including the advanced model of the Black Hawk. According to reports of the German air force, the system saved dozens of planes, with their crews and passengers, during the war in Bosnia.

A newspaper in Sri Lanka, where the systems were installed in some air force helicopters, reported in 1997 that in an attack of shoulder-launched missiles at a formation of four helicopters, an attack helicopter was downed - the only one of the group that did not have the system installed - and its crew was killed. The systems were operated in the three other helicopters, which were carrying 102 pilots and passengers, and they escaped without a scratch.