December 30, 2002

The goal of the U.S.-Israeli plan is to expand the military missile-deflection program to all commercial flights.Just weeks after terrorists fired a surface-to-surface air missile at a civilian Israeli plane carrying hundreds of vacationers home from Kenya, Israel has okayed plans to develop jointly with the U.S. a sophisticated defense system to protect civilian airplanes from missile attack.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to the joint project in a meeting with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, media reports said. The U.S. government has not yet commented on Sharon’s decision.

An Israeli diplomatic source confirmed the information saying, “A decision was taken to pursue a joint project with the U.S. to develop a sophisticated defense system to protect airplanes from missile attack.”

Israel has been examining the idea of installing anti-missile systems on its civil aircraft since shoulder-held missiles fired by suspected Al-Qaeda attackers narrowly missed an Israeli Arkia airliner in November carrying 271 passengers as it took off from Mombasa, Kenya. Around the same time, at least two suicide bombers blew up a hotel nearby, killing 11 Kenyans, three Israelis and themselves. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The Israeli military research company Rafael has developed a system that protects airplanes by sending out a hot beam of light to fool and divert heat-seeking missiles. However, installing the system would reportedly cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per plane.

Military jets have long been equipped with missile-deflection systems, but those planes are smaller and more maneuverable than commercial airliners. The goal of the U.S.-Israeli plan would be to expand the program to all commercial flights.

Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for cooperation among countries to develop such a system for commercial airplanes which could bring down the cost significantly. Touring European capitals last week, Netanyahu said that airlines worldwide faced a “clear and present danger” of missile attack.

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference last month, Netanyahu said the U.S., Israel, Britain, Germany and China should work together to develop civilian aircraft missile defense systems.
He proposed creating an “international consortium… the kind of technology we have perfected in Israel that can protect civilian airlines from incoming missiles.” A consortium such as this could minimize costs to the point that civilian air travelers would accept the added expense.

Sources familiar with El Al have said several of its planes are already fitted with electronic sensors capable of detecting incoming missiles. Mofaz proposed earlier this month installing anti-missile systems on 30 to 40 El Al planes that fly to international destinations believed to pose the greatest risk to commercial aircraft.

The Israeli government is also considering the use of two other anti-missile systems on airliners as a temporary measure:

– The Nurim system which fires flares to deflect heat-seeking missiles from their target – it is already installed on most military aircraft, but wider use would require US approval.

– A system under development in Israel for adaptation to civil aviation use which employs electronic means to confuse a missile’s targeting apparatus.

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