The downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine on July 17 and the rocket fire that disrupted international flights at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport last week underscored a significant threat to U.S. commercial aircraft.
One of the more serious menaces is shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Also known as man-portable air defense systems, these missiles were first used in the 1960s to protect military ground forces from enemy aircraft. However, their relative affordability, portability and accuracy have made them attractive tools in the arsenal of nonstate actors and terrorists.
Although it is difficult to pinpoint the precise number of the systems, the Government Accountability Office estimates that there are 500,000 to 700,000 around the world, with several countries -- including the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Sweden -- manufacturing them. While the vast majority of these missiles are under the control of their respective governments or militaries, the State Department believes several thousand of them are in the hands of terrorists and other nonstate actors who likely bought them from other countries, or on the black market or stole them.
For instance, as many as 4,000 of the portable systems went missing from Iraqi military armories following the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, and several thousand more are still unaccounted for after the Libyan civil war.
An attack on a U.S. airline domestically or abroad would wreak havoc on the industry and our economy. The loss of life would be devastating.
For years, I have worked on ways to incentivize and require the airline industry to include anti-missile defense systems on commercial aircraft. Air Force One has them, as do some military aircraft. El Al, Israel's national carrier, employs anti-missile defense systems on its planes. Why shouldn't American commercial planes use them, too?
Depending on which defense contractor builds them, most anti-missile systems include infrared missile-tracking cameras, sensors to detect projectiles and a system that interferes with the missile trajectory.
When I introduced the idea in 2003, many stakeholders, including defense contractors and airlines, resisted -- and continue to resist -- installing this common-sense safety feature. These stakeholders cite cost as one reason, but the expense of installing the system is roughly $1 million per plane, nearly the same amount as the in-flight entertainment system. Would you rather be assured of your safety while on board or be able to watch your favorite TV show?
That's why, once again, I'm asking the airline industry and others to work with me to find a sensible solution. The more planes we can outfit with the anti-missile technology, the safer we will be.
The tragic downing of Flight 17 and the attack near Ben-Gurion are stark reminders that terrorists will use any means to harm all of us. As we mourn the lives lost, we must renew our resolve to do everything we can to protect the flying public. We cannot prepare only for the easier threats; we have to think ahead. We can protect ourselves from shoe bombs and guns on planes, but we should be prepared for the next level: surface-to-air missiles.
Let's make sure that when we step onto a plane, we know we are as safe as we can be.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington), a member of the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives, has served on the Armed Services Committee.