Shore Up Existing Security

Equipping all planes with anti-missile devices isn't best strategy

Opposing view: Billions are better spent removing missiles, addressing safety gaps.

Equipping all 6,800 U.S. commercial aircraft with still-unproven infrared jammers would take six to 10 years and cost as much as $20 billion. If we’re prepared to spend that much, there are better uses for the money: take the missiles away from terrorists and fix gaping holes in airport security.

One approach already being used is to offer bounties for turning in shoulder-fired missiles. If there are 100,000 such rogue missiles, paying $25,000 for each would cost $2.5 billion.

Beefing up counterterror intelligence and covert operations could absorb another $1.5 billion. So far, that’s $4 billion toward eliminating the threat of these missiles.

Even more needs to be spent strengthening the weak links at America’s commercial airports. Thousands of non-airline employees have access to “secure” areas, from which they could gain access to planes. Many of these people have not had 10-year FBI background checks, and very few have biometric ID cards to ensure that the person who has been cleared is actually the one carrying the card.

Airport perimeters are usually secured by nothing more than chain-link fencing. Some boaters recently came ashore at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and wandered the runways. This vulnerability has been ignored in the rush to pour billions into checked-baggage inspection.

And while checked bags are screened for explosives, carry-on bags are not; neither is the cargo that rides next to luggage on passenger planes. We haven’t begun to address these problems, even though a bomb is deadly whether it gets aboard via a checked bag, carry-on or cargo package.

If we put an average of $ 100 million each into our 50 largest airports to address these three problems ($5 billion) and $ 20 million apiece at 350 smaller airports ($7 billion), that would be $12 billion well spent, preventing explosives from getting onto planes.

And because better technology for defeating missile attacks on planes is worth pursuing, another $1 billion spent on research, development and testing would also be a good investment. That adds up to $17 billion. Rather than spending this sum installing unproven technology, we’d be better off spending it on taking out the missiles and closing gaps in airport security.

Robert W. Poole, Jr. directs the Transportation Studies Program at the Reason Foundation. He advised the White House Domestic Policy Council and several members of Congress on ways to improve airport security following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.