Protecting aircraft with photonics technology
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Shoulder-fired
missiles, or man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), have been used by terrorists, criminals and other nonstate actors
to take down civilian aircraft.
In 2003, the US Department of State
estimated that, since the 1970s, more than
40 civilian aircraft had been hit by shoul-der-to-air missiles, causing about 25
crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide. In 2002, for example, terrorists fired
two missiles at an Arkia Airlines Boeing
757-300 carrying 271 passengers and crew
as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. Fortunately, both missiles missed their target.
In 1998, a Boeing 727 airliner was targeted by rebel forces over the Democratic
Republic of the Congo, resulting in the
deaths of 40 passengers.
Many state governments and international organizations are working to reduce
the probability that these missiles will get
into the hands of those who wish to target
civilians. In 2005, it was estimated that, to
produce the weapons, more 1 million
MANPADs had been manufactured by as
many as 20 countries. It is believed that,
although most of the devices are secure in
national inventories, excess and obsolete
stockpiles exist that are easily accessible
to unauthorized users.
The US government and other countries
and organizations continue to study the
problems associated with MANPADS,
weighing the benefits of potentially saving
lives and reducing the economic disruption of an airline attack against the effectiveness and costs of possible solutions,
among them, photonics technologies.
What are MANPADS?
Intended for lawful military use, MANPADS are designed to help troops defend
themselves against aerial attack. About the
size and weight of a full golf bag, the
portable short-range surface-to-air missiles
can be fired from the ground by an
individual to target aircraft at takeoff or
Most MANPADS consist of a missile
packaged in a tube, a launching mechanism and a battery. The missiles usually
contain homing devices that direct the
Jennica Dearborn, a BAE
Systems software engineer,
examines a laser gimbal,
an element of the JetEye
airliner IR missile protection system, which includes
a laser point-and-track
“jam head,” a multiband
IR laser, four missile-warn-ing sensors, control and
processing electronics, an
aircraft interface unit and
a flight deck control panel.
An element of the JetEye airliner IR missile protection system, the laser point-and-track “jam head” is
fitted to the underbelly of a plane.
weapons toward their target. The devices
are typically classified by their guidance
systems or seekers: IR, which home in on
an aircraft’s heat source; command line-of-site, where the operator visually targets
the aircraft and uses radio controls to
guide the missile; and laser guidance.
Countermeasures in progress
The US Department of Defense is
working to minimize the threat of shoul-
An artist’s concept of a shoulder-fired missile being
defeated by a laser-based IR countermeasure system
on an airplane. Photos courtesy of BAE Systems.