DALLAS — In 2004, El Al Israeli Airlines (LY) became the first airline to install an anti-missile system on a commercial aircraft. The technology was first developed for the Israeli Air Force’s Flight Guard, a sophisticated radar system that detects incoming missiles and ejects flares to confuse and deflect the missiles. The Israeli airline’s anti-missile defense system has since been updated repeatedly.
El Al’s aircraft are equipped with a Doppler radar system that uses the Doppler effect to produce velocity data pertaining to objects at a distance. When an LY aircraft comes under attack, the system responds within seconds by firing invisible flares that divert any heat-seeking missiles.
The Doppler radar system is comprised of four antennas: one at the front, two at the side, and one at the back. The configuration provides 360-degree coverage around the aircraft.
The Doppler radar system costs around US$1 million per aircraft to be installed. This system was initially installed on six of the flag carrier’s aircraft, and if successful, it would be rolled out to all of the carrier’s other planes.
Thus, LY was the first to install an anti-missile defense system on its aircraft, and the carrier is considered to have one of the most advanced systems, making it one of the safest airlines in the region.
Since its inaugural flight from Geneva to Tel Aviv in September 1948, LY has now grown to serve over 50 destinations, operating scheduled international and domestic services and cargo flights within Israel and to Europe, the Middle East, the Americas, Africa, and the Far East from its main base at Ben Gurion Airport (TLV).
El Al has been using the anti-missile system for quite a while now, given that it was the first airline to install this system almost 20 years ago. Back in November 2002, an Israeli Arkia Boeing 757 had a narrow escape when it was targeted by terrorists with MANPADS in Kenya.
Thankfully, the missiles missed their intended target, but the near-miss prompted the immediate suspension of flights from Israel and spurred the development of anti-missile systems. Two missiles barely missed the plane, carrying over 200 passengers.
That incident led Israeli airlines to consider installing an anti-missile system, specifically the Flight Guard system, on their aircraft.
Aircraft and helicopter anti-missile systems are mostly designed to counter short-range and shoulder-launched missiles. Missile defense systems use infrared sensors to detect the heat traces of incoming missiles. This capsule of extremely cold liquid either renders the incoming missile entirely invisible to detection or reduces the system’s ability to detect the incoming missile fast enough.
An anti-missile defense system seeks to defend a given area from attack by locating and tracking an incoming ballistic missile and then launching an interceptor to destroy the missile before it reaches the target. When an aircraft is attacked, the system responds with flames that are designed to deflect heat-seeking missiles.
The system is fully automatic; if a missile gets close enough for it to reach anti-missile radar, a laser beam is fired at the missile, deflecting it away from the aircraft, and the pilot gets alerted, i.e., information about the attack is received.
Furthermore, an anti-missile defense system consists of several individual elements, including sensors, weapon systems, communication networks, command and control, and support.
A missile approach warning (MAW) system is part of the avionics package on the aircraft. A sensor detects attacking missiles. Its automatic warning causes the pilot to make some defensive maneuvers and deploy the available countermeasures and safety precautions to disrupt missile tracking. When a plane comes under attack, the system responds by firing flares that are designed or optimized to divert the heat-seeking missiles.
More specifically, the planes will be equipped with a Doppler radar system that uses the Doppler effect to produce velocity data about objects that are at a distance. According to Airlive, some of the aviation officials weren’t too happy about the system and called it a fire hazard. That’s why engineers came up with a modern technology called the C-Music system.
El Al’s C-MUSIC System
Elbit’s Commercial Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasures (C-MUSIC) system was adopted by the airline in November 2014.
Under the Israeli government’s Sky Shield program, C-MUSIC was selected by the Israeli Ministry of Transportation to protect the entire LY aircraft fleet. The system has been certified and installed on Boeing 777, 747, 737, 757, and 767 and the system has a negligible impact on the aircraft’s performance.
After the completion of the flight and live fire tests, the C-Music system was installed on all Israeli commercial aircraft. It includes certification to FAR-25 requirements by the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI).
This system has been proven effective in the full range of operational conditions, providing the global aviation industry with top-tier protection against MANPADS attacks. It is designed to protect large jet aircraft against the man-portable heat-seeking surface-to-air missile known as MANPADS.
The C-Music system is a pod-mounted direct infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) system specifically designed to protect large jet aircraft from infrared missile threats. The pod integrates advanced fiber laser and thermal imaging technologies to deflect shoulder-fired IR missiles (MANPADS) from their intended target. It is self-contained in a pod, with a missile warning system, signal processing, laser emitter, beam conductor, beam director, and cooling. The compact rod’s length is about 2.7 meters, and it is designed to snap onto the carrying aircraft’s belly.
The pod operates as a stable-alone unit, with Infrared Passive Approach Warning System (PAWS) sensors, which were developed by Elbit Systems. This system generally monitors the surrounding area for potential threats.
When a missile warning is issued, PAWS tracks the threat and directs the DIRCM (Directional Infrared Control Measures), by employing a unique fiber laser emitter conducting the laser beam through a mirror turret, to illuminate and disrupt the threat’s guidance, alerting its flight course of the protected aircraft.
This system is generally fitted on the bottom of the aircraft, and instead of ejecting flares, it throws off the sensor on a heat-seeking missile by pointing a laser at the weapon sensor drawing it off course. After pointing of laser, the missiles get drawn off by their course as they get neutralized. These missiles are one of the most strategic, destructive, and powerful weapons for the air.
For years, Scientists and Engineers have been trying to develop the most powerful and skillful missiles in order to prevent Air attacks. After years of research, development, and testing all Israeli commercial aircraft are using the C-Music system which generally lies on the bottom of the aircraft and consists of a sensor that detects incoming missiles from a distance.
What are MANPADS?
Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) are shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missiles designed to be used against aircraft. Heat-seeking, anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS) pose a serious threat to commercial aviation and VIP aircraft. They are typically small, portable, and relatively inexpensive, making them a popular weapon for irregular forces and non-state actors.
The global proliferation and availability of these highly transportable and extremely lethal missiles have increased significantly in recent years, finding their way into the hands of terrorists and hostile non-state organizations.
Some examples of MANPADS include the FIM-92 Stinger and the SA-7 Grail. These weapons can pose a significant threat to low-flying aircraft, such as helicopters and transport planes, and have been used in numerous conflicts around the world.
A MANPADS attack against a commercial or VIP aircraft will, in most cases, result in the loss of the aircraft and of course the life of all passengers and crew members onboard the aircraft.
Fully Automated System
A fully automated anti-missile system implies that when a missile appears on the radar of an aircraft, a laser beam is fired at the missile within seconds, causing it to be deflected away from the aircraft.
The reaction time should be less than 1 or 2 seconds. A pilot might not react quickly enough within this time frame. Instead, the pilot will get information from the system regarding the attack once the threat is over.
Both the hardware and software of this defense system have been upgraded on multiple occasions as per requirements.
Other Operators with Anti-Missle Defense System
Israel is the only country to have mandated this technology for its airlines. However, a number of global commercial airlines have implemented anti-missile defense systems on their planes. Apart from LY, other airlines that have reportedly installed similar systems include but are not limited to,
- Air India (AI)
- Delta Air Lines (DL)
- Finnair (FY)
- Iberia (LB)
- Lufthansa 9LH)
- United Airlines (UA)
It is worth noting that many airlines do not publicly disclose information about their anti-missile defense systems, so the exact number of airlines using such systems is not known.
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Feature Image: 4X-EHA El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 737-958ER. Photo: Lorenzo Giacobbo/Airways