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Laser air defense eyed for commercial aircraft

If a terrorist fires a surface-to-air missile at a civilian airliner, should the plane be able to shoot back?

Regardless of whether you think the airlines, the airport management companies, and the federal government are doing enough to protect passengers against on-board terrorist threats, there are still threats to a commercial airliner from the outside.

BAE's Jeteye system
The Jeteye system would sit on the belly of the plane. BAE Systems

The planes are still vulnerable to, among other things, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, a danger that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is looking to alleviate. Late last week, defense and aerospace contractor BAE Systems said it had won a $29 million contract from the DHS to test a sensors-and-lasers system for air defense against missiles.

The multinational company plans to install its Jeteye aircraft missile defense systems on as many as three American Airlines planes to evaluate its compatibility with daily passenger airline operations. Jeteye uses sensors to pick up and track heat-seeking missiles heading toward the aircraft, and then fires a laser to disrupt a missile's infrared capabilities. BAE says the technology, already in use on military aircraft, is safe, easy to use, and compliant with FAA regulations.

If you've booked travel on American for later this year, don't worry that you'll be in harm's way from errant test missiles; the system won't be tried out on flights carrying passengers, according to an Associated Press story. The airline agreed to the tests--which could involve 1,000-plus flights involving Boeing 767-200 planes, a model typically used on flights between New York and Los Angeles or San Francisco--to get an understanding of the technology but actually opposes the use of antimissile systems on commercial planes, the AP reported.

According to the U.S. State Department, at least 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by shoulder-fired missiles, also known as MANPADS, in the last 30 or so years.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is working on airplane-based laser weapons designed, someday, to hit either much larger ballistic missiles or, separately, ground targets.