Tragedy struck in eastern Ukraine this morning when a Boeing 777 carrying 298 people was shot down by a surface-to-air missile. We don't yet know who's responsible for this horrific act of violence, but we do know what kind of missile was used to hit the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 at 33,000 feet.
Ukrainian officials believe the weapon was a Russian-made Buk missile platform. It's typically mounted on a truck or a tracked vehicle, and it uses a radar guidance system. This isn't the first time a passenger plane has been attacked by surface-to-air missiles. In 2002, shoulder-launched rockets nearly hit an Israeli 757 in Mombassa, Kenya.
So the real question is: Why don't commercial airliners come equipped with anti-missile technology?
The simple answer is cost. Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRC) are installed on Air Force cargo planes and tankers and even Air Force One. They jam missile guidance systems like the one in the Buk. Without guidance, the rockets have next to no chance of hitting their targets. Unfortunately, they're very expensive. Here's a chilling quote from an Air Force officer soon after the Mombassa incident 12 years ago:
“That’s more than $5 million per plane,” an Air Force officer said at the time. “Once the first U.S. commercial airliner is shot down—and U.S. airlines rush to install these systems on their own planes—the price will drop to $2 million or $3 million per plane.”
It's sad that it may take this tragedy to force airliners to act. It's even sadder that these countermeasures are necessary in the first place. But small, sophisticated arms like the Buk and the Stinger are widely proliferated and less expensive than ever. Make no mistake: Experts saw this type of attack coming. Time reports:
The threat of SAM attacks on U.S. airliners was acknowledged in an FAA study in 1993, which noted that as passenger and baggage screening became more rigorous, the chances of missile strikes would rise. The U.S. government’s interest in the problem followed its decision to supply Afghan mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan—whose ranks included the late Osama bin Laden and many of his al-Qaida lieutenants—with about 1,000 Stinger missiles in the 1980s. Pentagon officials credit the Stinger with downing about 250 Soviet aircraft.
In the wake of this tragedy, it's likely that more and more airlines will bite the bullet and install anti-missile jamming systems in their planes. As the market for the technology massively expands, the price per plane should come down significantly, although it will still be expensive. That cost will probably be passed onto the consumer, but it's worth it to ensure this doesn't happen again.