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Should We Protect Airplanes Against Surface-to-Air Missile Attacks?

CREATE study examines cost-effectiveness of installing new electronic systems onboard U.S. commercial fleet

October 18, 2006 — Amidst growing concern over possible surface-to-air missile (SAM) attacks on U.S. commercial aircraft, USC’s Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorist Events — known as CREATE —has recently published a study addressing the cost-effectiveness of new technologies that could prevent such attacks and safeguard travelers. 

The study, conducted under contract to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, assesses the near and long-term costs and consequences of specific countermeasures that could protect airplanes from these heat-seeking SAMs. 


“There is a real threat to the United States of terrorists attacking planes,” said Detlof von Winterfeldt, director of CREATE and professor of industrial and systems engineering in the USC Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.  “We estimate that at least 4,000 to 5,000 of these weapons — called “Man-Portable Air Defense Systems” (MANPADS) — are in the hands of terrorists and that there is a market for them in the U.S.”

CREATE examined a proposed technology that consists of electronic missile detection and tracking devices, or infrared “jammers,” that are currently used primarily on military aircraft.  The electronic system is able to detect incoming SAMs and interfere with the missiles’ homing seekers, thus knocking them off course.       

The study was done after Congress created a special MANPADS Countermeasures Office in 2004 to study proposed technologies that might be able to safeguard commercial aircraft. Although the military’s system is very effective, it would be extremely expensive to install on commercial airplanes, von Winterfeldt said.

“Depending on who you ask, it would cost anywhere from $1 million to $3 million per plane to install these systems,” von Winterfeldt said, “and then anywhere from $1 billion to $2.5 billion per year to operate a fleet equipped with the system.  Consequently, the decision to undertake such a program has to be weighed very carefully by policymakers in both the short- and- long-term.”

Over 10 years, the total cost of building, equipping and maintaining a fleet of commercial aircraft with these infrared systems would be close to $35 billion, according to a previous study by the RAND Corporation think tank in Santa Monica, CA.

Indirect Economic Impact
“When I first started this study, I thought the idea of spending $35 billion to protect planes from the unlikely event of SAM attacks was absurd,” von Winterfeldt said.  “Then we learned that the indirect economic impact of shooting down several planes could be tremendous.  Losing several planes to a terrorist attack can have a huge effect on the economy due to the loss not only of airline passengers but of commerce in the nation.”  

The longer term consequences would be just as devastating. Very likely, there would be a dramatic drop in airline passenger volume to “levels that were recorded after 9/11,” von Winterfeldt said.  “In addition, there would be a significant reduction in the tourist and hotel industries, in the use of recreational parks, and in virtually all of the other businesses that are related to tourism and travel. 

Detlof von Winterfeldt, director of CREATE.

“Our economists estimated that the total cost to the economy of a concerted, multiple MANPADS attack would be something like $250 billion,” he said.

All things considered, the study suggested that infrared detection and tracking devices would be effective countermeasures if three conditions prevail: 1) the probability of a MANPADS attack is greater than 40 percent over 10 years; 2) the economic losses are very large (greater than $75 billion); and 3) the countermeasures are relatively inexpensive (less than $15 billion) to implement. 

The study, entitled “Should We Protect Commercial Airplanes Against Surface-to-Air Missile Attacks by Terrorists,” by Detlof von Winterfeldt and Terrence M. O’Sullivan, appeared in the June 2006 issue of Decision Analysis.

A Premier Research Center
The MANPADS study is the result of a unique collaboration among interdisciplinary faculty at several universities who have joined forces to establish the terrorism research center.
CREATE is the first Department of Homeland Security-funded university center aimed at improving national security through modeling and analysis of potential terrorist threats.  Its work to bring the human and economic consequences of major terrorist events into the forefront of public policy requires a collaborative effort by experts in many fields, including computer science, civil engineering, industrial and systems engineering, economics, the social sciences, risk analysis and public policy.

The research involves a team of 40 faculty and 50 graduate students from USC, the University of Wisconsin and New York University. These researchers specialize in economic modeling of major disasters, cost-benefit analysis of major risk reduction decisions, and the impact of risk perceptions on economic decisions. The team develops advanced models and tools for risk management to gauge how and where terrorist events may occur, estimate the economic consequences of such attacks, and identify where the country is most vulnerable.
CREATE also relies for part of its expertise on USC’s Information Sciences Institute, on faculty in the USC Epstein Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, and on faculty from USC’s School of Policy, Planning and Development. 

Now in its third year of operation, CREATE has produced a variety of studies and advanced tools that are helping policymakers to plan against and prepare for major threats, such as chemical, biological, nuclear, radiological and cybersecurity attacks.