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Target in the Air?

Aired August 13, 2003 - 20:04   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: So how safe are commercial airliners from the threat of a shoulder-fired missile? Let's get right into it.
From Washington I'm joined by Christopher Bolkcom, he's a national defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service and I'm joined here in New York by Isaac Yeffet, the former head of security for Israel's El Al Airlines.

Mr. Yeffet, let me begin with you. How serious of a threat is this?

ISAAC YEFFET, FMR. SECURITY DIR., EL AL: We are vulnerable and the big evidence is the missile of yesterday. We don't have in this country a security system that will be proactive to prevent tragedy in case of terrorist attack. We are not ready to prevent tragedy with the security level that we have here.

BLITZER: Is this the tip of the iceberg, Christopher? You've done some recent research on this whole potential threat out there.

CHRISTOPHER BOLKCOM, NATL. DEFENSE SPECIALIST: Well, Wolf, I'd say that the threat today to civilian airlines is no greater than it was ten years ago or no greater than ten years before that. We know that this has been a problem for a while. These systems are very inexpensive. They're widely proliferated. They're easy to conceal and relatively easy to use.

BLITZER: How easy would it be for a terrorist to get their hands on one of these missiles?

BOLKCOM: Well, Wolf, over a million have been made by countries like the United States, Russia, and exported to our allies and insurgents and militias that we've backed but we have no idea how many of these have been made by countries, knock off brands if you will like Bulgaria, Syria, China. I've heard that there's quite a thriving black market and this may be evidence of that fact.

BLITZER: Isaac, we know that terrorist groups out there have trained with these kind of Stinger or shoulder-fired missiles. Al Qaeda, we saw that training. Is it your information that they have already some of these missiles potentially out there? We know they tried to shoot down an Israeli plane in Mombasa, Kenya.

YEFFET: We have positive information about al Qaeda that they bought a few years ago thousands of missiles, Russian missiles (unintelligible). We know that Hezbollah got missiles from Iran. Now, the terrorists should not look to pay money to buy the missiles. It would be enough to contact the Hezbollah or the al Qaeda. They would be more than happy to supply them with missiles to go and to blow up any aircraft they can in this country.

BLITZER: It's been going on though since the '70s. Planes have -- commercial passenger planes have been blown up with these kinds of missiles. It hasn't happened here in the United States. Is it your fear it's only a matter of time?

YEFFET: The question is not if the question is when and I have to warn ourselves that we didn't even think that September 11 would happen and we faced the tragedy of September 11.

If we are looking to save money and not to install the antimissile device on our aircraft we will pay high price in the future after facing tragedy when the terrorists will blow up one of our aircraft and hundreds of innocent people will die.

BLITZER: Christopher, what does the U.S. government need to do to make sure this doesn't happen?

BOLKCOM: Well, oftentimes people rush to what they think is a silver bullet approach, our IR countermeasures for instance. I just point out that's potentially one part of a larger problem. The military is very good at defeating this sort of threat but they use a myriad of approaches.

We need better airport security. We need to think about changing the way our airlines operate. We need to consider IR countermeasures. We need to conduct sting operations like this and get serious about nonproliferation as well, so you really need a broad brush approach to attack this problem.

BLITZER: All right, let me let Mr. Yeffet give the last word, go ahead.

YEFFET: By the law since February, 2002, the TSA became in charge of security. In other words, the federal government became in charge. The law says that no one of the security people that will be hired in this country will be hired without background security check.

BLITZER: But you're concerned there's not enough checks yet?

YEFFET: No, we did not, 55,000 security people in this country were hired by the TSA. More than 25,000 were hired with no security background check and just lately 50 security people at JFK only caught with a criminal record.

BLITZER: All right, we're going to have to leave it right there, pretty scary stuff though. Isaac Yeffet thanks so much for joining us.

YEFFET: Thank you.

BLITZER: Christopher Bolkcom thanks to you in Washington as well.

BOLKCOM: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: If a commercial airliner were shot down by a missile it could further cripple an already limping industry. What exactly would be the repercussions? I'm joined now from Washington by the savvy traveler Rudy Maxa. He's a consumer travel expert.

Rudy thanks very much for joining us. What would be the ramifications, God forbid, if a terrorist shot down a commercial airliner?

RUDY MAXA, "THE SAVVY TRAVELER": The ramifications would be enormous. You've got to figure, well you don't have to figure, studies show that a good percentage, a healthy percentage of people who get on a plane even in normal times, even before 9/11 are flying scared. They don't quite understand how the plane stays up there. They don't understand the process.

So, if you've already got a third to 40 percent of the people on the plane afraid of flying in good weather, in good times, imagine what would happen if a commercial plane were brought down by a weapon.

BLITZER: So, what you're suggesting people just start driving or taking trains or whatever, they avoid flying?

MAXA: Sure, they'd avoid flying. I mean leisure flying would drop off. Obviously, the aviation industry isn't going to shut down. You can't run a modern economy without people getting on planes and things being sent by planes so it's not the end of commercial aviation.

But, with airlines losing still well, you know, in the last couple of years single airlines losing $1 billion, as the major ones American, United did, it's going to be a crushing blow. I mean the government may have to nationalize a few airlines. A couple airlines may have to go out of business. The consolidation of routes and planes and companies would be astonishing, I think.

BLITZER: But, if I'm a flyer, and I am a flyer obviously, and millions of Americans are, if they're watching this sting operation, they're watching this discussion we're having right now on this program that's certainly going to affect some jittery travelers already.

MAXA: It's going to affect the people who are already frightened of flying. They'll say see, look now not only is it, you know, can something terrible happen to you because it's, you know, flying without my understanding why but you have these threats now going on.

The only thing I can say as a consumer travel guy and who publishes a monthly newsletter about travel, and obviously is supportive of travel and travels as you do is that, you know, people didn't stop going into federal buildings after Timothy McVeigh backed a truck up to the federal building in Oklahoma City and killed so many people. People still go up in high rises in New York City after 9/11, so industry will come back. People will still fly but in between it's going to be ugly, ugly, ugly.

BLITZER: Rudy Maxa thanks very much for joining us.

MAXA: Thank you, Wolf, nice talking to you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

U.S. military jets can detect and evade antiaircraft missiles. Experts say it would cost $10 billion if not more to equip the nation's 6,800 commercial airliners with the same technology. How does the technology work? Is it worth the price?

Joining me now from Washington Robert Delboca, he's the vice president of Northrup Grumman's infrared countermeasure systems. Also in Washington, James Carafano, he's a senior fellow with the Heritage Foundation. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Let me begin with you, Bob. What about the technology is it available to go right now?

ROBERT DELBOCA, NORTHRUP GRUMMAN: Yes, it is. We've developed the technology over the past eight years and we're in production for the U.S., the U.K. MOD and other governments in protecting the military aircraft from the (unintelligible) threat.

BLITZER: Presumably if a lot of airliners want it the cost per plane would go down if there were economies of scale.

DELBOCA: That's correct. We would currently estimate that for the larger quantities of aircraft approximately $1 million per airplane is about where the cost would be for the installations.

BLITZER: Mr. Carafano is that your assessment as well?

JAMES CARAFANO, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: Well I think that's premature. I do agree that technology is part of the answer and we do have to take this threat seriously. I think we have to look at all the technology out there and I believe that the marketplace can offer some good solutions here.

I think if you went to somebody and said we have a thing that can potentially have a global need I think you'd find a lot of people bringing a lot of technologies forward that might address this problem.

BLITZER: Well, because Mr. Carafano a lot of people say if the U.S. military, if military aircraft have the technology to detect this kind of threat, if Air Force One has it, if the Israeli commercial passenger jets, the cargo planes have it, why not just bring it on and let all of the civilian planes in the United States have it as well?

CARAFANO: I do think they need some technology solutions. I'm not sure the military is the direct analogy. I mean military planes are designed to go in a high threat environment with lots of people shooting at them from lots of different directions.

We're looking at, you know, maybe one, two, a couple of missiles being fired at commercial airlines which is a lesser problem and so the technological solutions might even be simpler and far less costly than they are for military aircraft.

BLITZER: I spoke earlier today, Mr. Delboca, with another expert on aviation security. He suggested if you put this kind of equipment on commercial planes it would increase the drag and as a result increase fuel expenditures. It would result in an enormous expenditure for the U.S. airline industry.

DELBOCA: That's not what our analysis currently shows. We show very little drag impact to it. The system would be installed towards the rear of the aircraft where the aerodynamic flow is very favorable. There would be a minimal impact to the drag and therefore to the fuel.

BLITZER: How exactly, Mr. Delboca, is the flare technology, if you will, how does that exactly work if a terrorist has a shoulder- fired missile. He's ready to knock it off the plane out of the sky what happens?

DELBOCA: Well, our technology is laser-based. It directs a laser at the missile system and defeats the missile guidance portion of the missile so it's not flare-based. Flare-based systems eject very hot phosphorous type or other types of projectiles, if you will, in order to deceive the missile. Our system basically detects the missile, points a laser at it and jams the guidance system.

BLITZER: Mr. Carafano, we're told also that pilots can learn various evasive techniques to use in case they -- when they suspect some sort of threat like this. Are there those kinds of evasive techniques available?

CARAFANO: Yes, I think that's true. Particularly we think that these things are probably going to be used by relatively inexperienced, untrained firers. That may indeed pose a problem.

You know it's particularly, I mean we're really talking about the few minutes before planes take off and land when they're really in this threat envelope and, of course, in a busy airport you got lots of planes going in lots of different directions. You'd have to have pretty good drills, pretty good coordination for that kind of thing but that may be kind of the first step.

I think the important thing is, is we don't do like we did after 9/11, knee jerk reaction, create TSA, spend a lot of money, mandate a solution and then find not a perfect solution, we can do this better.

This is a threat that's not going to go away. We need to get Congress, the administration and the industry together and come up with a sensible solution that suits all our needs and provides long term security.

BLITZER: Mr. Delboca, one final question. If the government decided to go ahead and outfit all the U.S. planes with this kind of equipment how long would it take to get the job done?

DELBOCA: Well, it would take probably a couple of years to get the job done, a few years. The system itself we can design it so the installation is quite simple, bring the manufacturing base up to equip a large number of aircraft and the system when it's installed is completely autonomous. There's no pilot interaction required for the system to operate properly.

BLITZER: Robert Delboca thanks very much. James Carafano thanks as well to you, a very, very disturbing development, appreciate it very much.

CARAFANO: Thank you.

DELBOCA: Thank you.


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