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Israel innovates in aviation security

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An F-16 drops flares at the Sunderland International Air Show, in the UK, on July 29, 2007.   (Ben Allen)

An F-16 drops flares at the Sunderland International Air Show, in the UK, on July 29, 2007. (Ben Allen)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – Already a world leader in aviation security, Israel is fast adapting to the ever-heightened risks of the post-9/11 world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s Security Cabinet on Wednesday approved two initiatives to deal with the main threats posed by al-Qaeda to passenger planes: suicidal hijackings and shoulder-fired missile attacks.

As of 2008, all airlines flying into Israel will be required to equip their pilots with Code Positive, a system that allows ground controllers to determine whether planes have been commandeered by terrorists.

The Israeli invention, which Israel’s Transportation Ministry will distribute free of charge, consists of a personalized card with which the pilot relays a predetermined code upon approaching Tel Aviv.

Should hijackers kill or remove the cockpit crew in the manner of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States, their non-transmission of the code will let Israel know something is amiss. If a pilot is forced by terrorists to activate Code Positive, he or she has the option of entering false data, which will serve as a discreet mayday message.

The Security Cabinet said in a statement that Code Positive “will significantly reduce the danger of unidentified or hijacked airplanes entering Israeli airspace in order to perpetrate terrorist attacks.”

When Code Positive was unveiled earlier this year, Danny Shenar, the Transportation Ministry’s chief security officer, said, “You can’t bluff this system.”

Israel’s air force is under instructions to force suspect planes to land at a location far from built-up areas.

In 1973, warplanes shot down a Libyan airliner that strayed into the Israeli-controlled Sinai by accident, suspecting it was on a mission to ram into a ground target. Scores of crew and passengers were killed in the tragedy, which prompted Israel to improve its aviation counter-measures.

Now Israel relies on its intelligence services, and their foreign allies, to give advance notice on potential hijackings. Should the worst happen, fighter jets can be scrambled within minutes to implement a series of tactical counter-measures.

“We buzz the suspect plane, and if that doesn’t work, we can fire our cannons very close to its cockpit. The idea is to do everything possible to unnerve the hijackers,” a senior air force officer said on condition of anonymity. “But as a last resort, we have shoot-down orders. There is no way we can allow another World Trade Center disaster to take place in Tel Aviv.”

Just a few months ago, Israel scrambled jets and prepared to shoot down a non-responsive Continental Airlines passenger flight from Newark, N.J., which had failed to make contact with Ben-Gurion Airport’s control tower as it approached Israeli airspace. Israel Air Force fighter jets forced the 777 Boeing plane with 273 passengers to change its course, at which point the pilot got back into contact with the tower. The plane landed safely.

The U.S. Sept. 11 Commission concluded that the Bush administration might have been quicker to order jets to intercept the planes that crashed into New York, Washington and Pennsylvania had there been a way of determining earlier that they had been hijacked.

It was Israel that suffered the first instance of another kind of al-Qaeda attack – shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles.

A Soviet-era Strela missile was fired at an Israeli Arkia passenger jet after it took off from Kenya in 2003, narrowly missing it. That incident sent shockwaves through the international aviation industry and prompted Israel to search for a way of protecting its planes.

The result was Flight Guard, a Israeli device that is fitted to the fuselage of a plane. When its sensors detect incoming missiles, Flight Guard shoots out flares to divert them.

“This is a system that has been approved to be installed on civilian planes, and as far as I know there is no such system elsewhere in the world,” Nissim Hadas, who heads the company that produces Flight Guard, told Israel Radio.

“The main threat is from shoulder-fired missiles, of which there are great quantities all over the world and which are easily obtainable and are simple to use,” Hadas said.

Flight Guard, which cost about $1 million per unit, was fitted onto several El Al planes for a trial run. But the airline quickly faced objections from several foreign destinations that felt that flares, if deployed over their airports or outlying residential areas, would post an unnacceptable fire risk.

According to Israel’s Channel One television, the Flight Guard systems aboard El Al planes flying to the United States had to be disabled. But Hadas said the system is safe and that its use has been accepted by many countries that receive Israeli air traffic.

Still, Israel needed an alternative. So the Security Cabinet approved a parallel system to Flight Guard, which will use non-pyrotechnic lasers to sear the heat-seekers on incoming missiles and thus throw them off course.

That invention, known as MUSIC (Multi-Spectral Counter MANPADS System), is supposed to be in the pipline as of next year; Israel has earmarked some $90 million in special funding for it. MUSIC is expected to be ready for use by 2010.

“At the start of 2008, development will commence on a new technological system to replace the system presently being installed,” the Security Cabinet said. Israel is “the first nation in the world to reinforce its commercial airline fleet against missile attacks,” the Cabinet said.

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