Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.


US Army “Spyder” missile launch.

 

After an apparent missile strike brought down Malaysia Air flight 17 over the Ukraine with senseless, tragic loss of life, public focus has included possible defensive systems for airliners. From my perspective as an airline captain, I believe the discussion is good, but in my opinion, fruitless.

First, my disclaimer up front: I’ve never flown any aircraft with defensive systems, and I haven’t flown a military aircraft since my last flight as an Air Force pilot in 1985. Even then, our strategy was simple: avoidance of threat areas.

So what I know about aircraft missile defensive systems is from three sources: discussion with engineers who design such defensive systems at Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin, former military pilots who did evade missiles in flight, and industry publications such as Jane’s Aircraft and Weapons and Aviation Week & Space Technology.

That background, plus my 29 years (and counting) of uninterrupted flying as an airline pilot lead me to the following questions, for which I find no good answers:

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1. Who? As in, who would operate such defensive systems, not only in cruise flight, but as importantly, in the low altitude structure on approach and departure when both the crew workload and vulnerability to even shoulder-launched missiles is highest? A passive system might (heavy on the “might”) do an adequate job detecting an impending missile threat (launched, launch-ready, or targeted) but then who–especially on a two-man crew, will analyze the threat and devise the defensive tactics to defeat the weapon or tracking system?

Some analysts point to the industry-standard TCAS (Traffic Conflict Avoidance System) as an example of an already operational avoidance system, but that overlooks one major flaw: TCAS is designed to detect potential flight path intersections of two flying bodies, then to compute and issue avoidance instructions to each. Besides the fact that one party in the impending collision–the missile–will not respond to avoidance instructions, the fact is, for the other aircraft, the instructions would be insufficient to avoid a missile. That’s because TCAS conforms to the design limitations of the airliner, stopping short of any maneuvering loads that would damage or destroy the aircraft.

So, who on board the airliner will be operating any defensive systems that would monitor threats, analyze incoming missiles or antiaircraft fire and devise evasive tactics? In a word, it can’t/shouldn’t/won’t be the two whose full attention better be on the approach or departure.

 

2. What? As in, what defensive systems? There are some systems designed for large aircraft that mask the infrared signature of the engines to foil heat seeking missiles. But, as in the case of MH17, the missiles weren’t heat seekers anyway. They were radar guided, against which heat-masking is largely ineffective. The simplest countermeasure against radar guided missiles might be chaff, which is essentially shredded foil that is ejected when a missile launch is imminent or in progress to disrupt targeting radar returns, but step two after dispensing chaff is to aggressively vacate the airspace the missiles were targeting. That brings us back to the limits encoded in TCAS: design limitations to prevent damage or structural failure preclude anything other than lumbering maneuvers in the air, hardly sufficient to avoid a missile traveling near the speed of sound.

3. Where? As in, in flight (see above) or on the ground? Regarding the latter, consider the recent destruction of 9 passenger jets on the airfield by terrorists in Karachi, Pakistan. Even if there were aircraft-based defensive systems, the fully-fueled, barely maneuverable or even parked jets are sitting ducks for explosive destruction–with hundreds of innocent lives at stake.

Which brings us the recent FAA ban on flight into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. In my opinion as just one individual airline pilot, that FAA restriction was a mistake, for a couple of good reasons. First, I believe it was an over-reaction by the FAA that contravened the airlines’ own internal safety and security analysis and strategy. Worse, the one-size-fits-all restriction was hasty and clumsy, creating economic and political liabilities for our most staunch ally in an already volatile region.

 

I don’t advocate unthinking flights into a dangerous area, I just believe that the individual airlines are fully capable (and unceasingly, painfully aware of liability) when it comes to determining whether or not to continue airline service.

I’m fully informed on the risk of what is typically an unguided rocket (vs. missile, with a guidance system that could be defeated) being lobbed by dumb luck onto the airport. But the risk assessment should be left to the individual airlines to evaluate and resolve with sensible policy.

Passengers, of course, can decide for themselves whether to fly or not–but crewmembers are assigned to flights. I believe they should be given a choice whether or not to fly into a hostile area, but that’s a completely different decision level way below the FAA blanket ban and its attendant political and economic liability to the host nation.

4. Why? This is a “big picture” issue: why even discuss defensive systems for airliners, beyond the “warm fuzzy” (recall the short-lived “office parachutes” that appeared briefly after 9-11) even if unfounded, when we realize–as with my last Air Force squadron–that avoidance is the only way to make a large aircraft safe when any offensive weapons are in use.

Again, while the FAA is prudent to issue air route restrictions (route were modified/restricted–not prohibited) over war zones like the Ukraine, blanket bans such as the Tel Aviv landing prohibition are senseless and politically, reckless.

Let airlines, passengers and (this should be ensured) crew decide what risk makes individual sense. And leave the missile defense to the pros, which in the case of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport, certainly the Israelis are the best in the world. It would be my personal choice to fly there myself for that reason, and I’d rather both pilots were focused on civilian flight duties when we do.

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17 Responses to “Airliners & Missile Defense: A Pilot’s View.”

  1. Fully agree: it won’t work. Perhaps a fully automatic flare-firing system might fool some heatseaking missiles but all other options will not work.
    Some thoughts:
    -jamming the radar signal will only cost lots of money and will always lag behind.
    -some missiles can be avoided, if the cockpit gets a bubble design and the aircraft can pull 8G
    -airline flying in tactical formations for better lookout and crew members in belly with big windows to cover deep six.
    -this is only about missiles, but what about AAA? A lot of bombers were brought down by all kinds of artillery…
    -radar warning receivers can be installed, but then what? Return, evade, shoot back?
    Bottom line is that a safe sky should be provided by authorities and each airline should decide if they consider it safe enough. Perhaps pilots and/or passengers might influence the airline decision a bit.

    • Excellent summary, Martin, I appreciate your view since you certainly flew fighters against such threats and airliners around the world. Well put, and thanks!

  2. Scott Shreders Says:

    Chris,
    I agree. Totally unfeasible economically and technically. I also agree that routes should be left up to individual carriers but that it should be made more clear to customers that their flight is scheduled to go over a potentially dangerous environment…while they are booking their flight. That doesn’t help the crew much, but if they were made more aware of the hazard they could bid for different routes I suppose. The economics of this would surely influence the airlines to rethink their dispatching. Obviously, people know when that when they’re booking a flight to Israel during a time of crisis they are taking a calculated risk. But I at least 9/10 pax on MH17 had no clue their flight from northern europe to southeast asia would have them flying over one of the most dangerous places on the planet.

  3. Randall Sohn Says:

    chris me man, is there an echo in here???????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! best, randy

    • Yup, Randy, you’ve been saying it all along. And even if there was some type of airliner RAW system, it would come with a gratis 2-week deferral allowance: “fly as is.”

  4. I’m a retired USAF Electronic Warfare Officer, I used to fly the F-4G Weasel and the EF-111A Raven. I thought about SAMs every day for almost 20 years.

    There is no practical defense against radar guided SAMs that could work on an airliner, short of installing a full EW suite out of a B-52.

    Even then, modern SAMs of the SA-11 class that murdered MH17 would probably still kill an airliner.

    It might be desirable to fit airliners with the kind of IR jammers that you see on the engine pylons of Air Force One, but I’m not even sure that’s worth the cost. Air Force is said to have a window in the tailcone with a guy looking aft and down on take off and landing. This guy’s job is to push a chaff and flares button if he sees a missile. Not really something suitable for a civil airliner.

    The best answer is providing the civil airlines with better threat intel.

    • You as a Weasel EWO would certainly be the go-to expert on SAMs and defensive counter-measures. I think with basically elephantine maneuverability, airliners are helpless against missiles even if detected early. As you said, early, accurate threat assessment and good judgment are the only real assets we can muster against missiles.

  5. And let’s not forget that no airline in the world is going to pay the extra cost of hauling round a defensive system for the 9,999+ flights where there’s absolutely no threat, let alone incident.

  6. […] dome, MH14, mh17, missile launch, Tel Aviv. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  7. Excellent points. The FAA response was out-of-line, but not surprising given the increasing nanny-state we are living under. The Government Knows Best and is here to take care of you so you don’t have to make those pesky, difficult decisions for yourself.

    It is also further evidence of our tendency, as a culture, to expect or demand “someone to do something!” right now! about a tragedy, instead of taking time to rationally review the situation, options, and Constitutional restrictions to actions.

    Bombs at commerical airport? Forbid carriers from going instead of allowing them and their pax to make their own choices, and review possible political ramifications, and getting better intelligence.

    Shooting? Make more laws instead of enforcing the ones on the books already. Ignore mental health issues and jail sentences/paroles because that’s too hard to deal with.

    Terrorist attack? Create another massive bureaucracy and bug everyone’s phones instead of getting better intelligence, improving the safety checks we have now, and focusing on known threat groups (yes, profiling).

    If I want to risk flying into Tel Aviv, and a US airline is willing to take me, it’s my own damn business. The FAA has a responsibility to warn me. They have no right to forbid me.

  8. […] You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own […]

  9. Good article. Only thing I would add is there are fully autonomous systems that can deploy chaff and or flares in case of a threat. These would not take up the non flying pilots duties.

    Would they help’ not sure… Economically feasible? Probably not, perhaps on a limited number of an airlines fleet. Good for military charters maybe.

  10. Reblogged this on Rickman Rights Blog and commented:
    Some systems are available, but not economically feasible for an entire fleet. Limited employment perhaps , but even with chaff it probably would not have helped the Malaysia flight over Ukraine. They might help against some lower flying shoulder fired threats.

  11. We have come up with a low cost airliner missile defense solution for heat seeking manpads (www.innoviator.com), but the SAM system that brought down the MH17 flight presents greater challenges. We know the technology is available, but it will take some time to miniaturize and reduce cost before it becomes attractive to carriers.

  12. Bill Brandt Says:

    What was the Malaysian crew doing in that area in the first place? Certainly wasn’t their fault for being shot down but wouldn’t prudency (sp?) dictate staying out of the area?

    I would agree with your well experienced commenters – in another lifetime I was in Army Air Defense – it would be ridiculous trying to design defensive systems the military uses unto civilian airliners.

    Ridiculous from a cost perspective and ridiculous from a technical perspective.

  13. Captain Manno, I have to fly from BNA to Bur or LAX this Thanksgiving on AA Airlines. As you know I’m horrified of flying. Does AA Airlines have a request a Pilot program? I would feel much safer if you were my Pilot. My husband says request a Pilot is not going to happen. Will you be flying from Nashville to California this Thanksgiving season? Thanks!

    • Thanks for the compliment, but probably not–I typically bid and, after 29+ years of seniority! fly the longest turns possible (DFW to SEA, BOS, BDL, PHL, LGA) so as to finish my monthly flight hours in the fewest possible days.

      But don’t worry, you’ll be in good hands with any of my colleagues!

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