The recent conflict in Israel raises security concerns, disrupting air travel and making flights too high-risk for several airlines to operate. Israeli airlines El Al, Israir, and Arkia added flights last week to bring home reservists, and continue to operate most of their flights as scheduled. What gives them the confidence to do so? Israel has been at the forefront of integrating anti-missile defense systems into its commercial aircraft fleet.
High-Risk Repatriation Flights From Israel
In times of crisis, commercial airlines step up wherever possible to transport passengers and emergency supplies. Even airlines eager to bring stranded nationals home from Israel have had to revise their plans out of concerns for flight security and the liabilities involved in high-risk flights. Last week, concerned over passenger safety and the safety of its crew, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines declined the Government’s request for a repatriation flight.
“We wanted to fulfill the request of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs to repatriate Dutch citizens from Tel Aviv, on the condition that the flight could be operated safely. However, based on the most recent safety and security assessments of circumstances in Israel, we decided we could not operate the flight,” the airline stated.
SWISS canceled two of its repatriation flights, scheduled for Saturday, on Friday of last week also citing security concerns. Norwegian, on the other hand, canceled its commercial flights but carried out three rescue flights to Israel on behalf of Norway’s Department of Foreign Affairs. The U.S. government is chartering flights to operate repatriation flights after U.S. carriers cancelled scheduled service.
The Genesis Of Anti-Missile Defense In Commercial Flight
Israel’s decision to integrate anti-missile defenses in commercial aircraft was precipitated by an alarming incident in 2002. En route in Kenya, an Israeli Arkia Boeing
MANPAD Threat To Aviation
The global proliferation of MANPADS seriously threatens commercial aviation and VIP aircraft. These transportable lethal weapons have become increasingly available to terrorists and non-state actors.
Around 20 countries have produced or have licenses to produce MANPADS or their components. The total number of MANPADS in the global inventory is difficult to estimate. The black market cost of MANPADS can range from a few hundred dollars to over one hundred thousand dollars.
The most common type of MANPADS is the first-generation infrared-homing system designed by the former Soviet Union known as the SA-7b. This is the type most terrorist groups hold, according to the U.S. Department of State. Non-state actors acquire MANPADS from gray and black markets, arms dealers, corrupt officials, and by other means.
The U.S. State Department has previously reported that 40 civilian aircraft had been hit by MANPADS since 1975. At the time of the report, in 2017, the weapons systems had caused about 28 crashes and more than 800 deaths worldwide. All of the incidents recorded took place in conflict zones, except the November 2002 incident in Mombasa that prompted Israel to look more closely at passenger plane security measures.
The first recorded incident on March 12, 1975, involved a Douglas C-54D-5-DC passenger airliner operated by Air Vietnam. A MANPADS system hit the aircraft, causing it to crash into Vietnamese territory. The crash killed all six crew members and 20 passengers.
An Air Rhodesia Vickers 782D Viscount passenger airliner crashed after being hit by a MANPADS fired by the Zimbabwe People’s Revolution Army on September 3, 1978. The crash killed four crew members and 34 passengers.
Abkhazian separatist forces shot down A Tupolev 154B aircraft operated by Transair Georgia on September 22, 1993. It crashed onto the runway and caught fire, killing 108.
A Dassault Mystère-Falcon 50 executive jet carrying Rwanda’s and Burundi’s presidents and its French flight crew was shot down over Kigali on April 6, 1994.
The Tutsi militia brought down a Boeing 727-30 Lignes Aeriennes Congolaises aircraft over the Democratic Republic of the Congo jungle, on October 10, 1998, killing 41.
The close-call incident on November 28, 2002, prompted Israel to adopt anti-missile systems on passenger aircraft. Terrorists fired two MANPADS at an Arkia Airlines Boeing 757-3E7 with 271 passengers and crew on board as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. While both missiles missed, Israel considered the event a warning to take action.
The Flight Guard System
By 2004, El Al had installed the Flight Guard system. Initially developed for the Israeli Air Force, this technology relies on a complex radar mechanism to identify incoming missiles and eject flares to counteract and misdirect the projectiles. The Flight Guard system required pilots to launch the flares.
C-MUSIC Directed Infrared Countermeasure
Israel further enhanced commercial airline security in 2014 with the Commercial Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures system. Adopted under the Israeli government’s Sky Shield program, C-MUSIC has advanced capabilities, providing defense against MANPADS.
C-MUSIC is a Directed Infrared Counter Measure solution developed by Elbit Systems to protect aircraft against heat-seeking surface-to-air missiles. It is a fully automatic, autonomous system that uses lasers to protect aircraft against advanced heat-seeking ground-to-air missiles.
A missile warning system provides early detection of an incoming threat. This activates the DIRCM equipment, which acquires and tracks the missile. It then fires a laser beam at the missile’s seeker to quickly direct the missile away from the passenger aircraft. This process happens in seconds and does not require crew intervention.
Designed for installation on aircraft in a single fuselage-mounted pod, C-MUSIC has been certified by Civil Aviation Authorities for aircraft installation. The low-profile pod can be rapidly dismounted from one aircraft and remounted on another, enabling several pods to serve an entire fleet. The equipment is reported to cost $1m per aircraft.
In cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Defense, C-MUSIC underwent extensive operational testing. The system is fully functional on Israeli commercial airlines. It is certified and installed on Boeing B777, B747, B737, B757, B767, and Airbus A330 and A320 aircraft. Israel’s Transport Ministry has previously asked airlines to stop operating ATR planes because they could not be outfitted with the system. According to the manufacturer, C-MUSIC systems have flown over 35,000 operational hours on multiple aircraft platforms.
Israel remains the only nation to mandate anti-missile systems on its airline aircraft. However, other global commercial airlines and aircraft that carry heads of state and VIPs have independently adopted the technology. The exact number of global airlines employing the technology and aircraft equipped with the systems remains undisclosed due to aviation security’s sensitive and critical nature.