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Cracking the laser case


I've felt all along that terrorists in general—and al Qaeda in particular—prefer simple weapons and strategies to complex ones. As Stratfor (paid subscription required) emphasized recently, "even the most audacious and grandiose attacks—the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States and the Beslan school massacre in Russia, for instance—are at their core fairly simple. The first involved ramming one object into another in an effort to destroy the target. The latter was a hostage taking, though a particularly violent one."

Which is why I've argued that a shoulder-launched missile (like the Stinger or even the lowly RPG-7) would be a more likely way for jihadists to bring down an airliner than something as esoteric as the ZM-87. (Also, at about $35,000 a pop, a ZM-87 is many times more expensive than a shoulder-launched missile—no small consideration for an organization whose budget has been squeezed over the past few years.)

But suppose the two devices were used in combination, as a means of rehearsing for and coordinating a simultaneous attack on our airline infrastructure?

That's exactly what Phantom suggests in a recent post on The Daily Brief:

There is an assumption that lasers are being used to blind pilots. The type of laser that could blind two pilots would, first, have to be highly sophisticated and expensive and, second, would have to hit the cockpit from the front of the aircraft. A difficult feat on an object moving over 300 miles per hour ….

Lasers are not being used to blind pilots. Lasers are being used to measure straight line distance from the ground to an aircraft aircraft at its most vulnerable state—landing. An aircraft on takeoff would be a more difficult target—maximum power and maximum climb. But a landing ship slows down to a speed just short of a stall and follows a prescribed path of flight .

The information regarding an aircraft’s peak vulnerability would be invaluable. Documenting landing approaches and and straight line distances would be highly useful in target acquisition. That information is critical regarding available weapons systems.

Since 2002, the FBI has been issuing warnings about shoulder fired missiles being smuggled into the U.S. The effective range of older shoulder fired missiles is between 11,000 and 15,000 feet and can be fired from up to 3 miles away from the target. Newer models, which are already bring copied by the likes of North Korea, China and Pakistan have ranges exceeding 22,000 feet with greater stand off distances.

In September of 2003, the Department of Homeland Security began soliciting bids for anti-missile devices for commercial aircraft. That was the beginning of an 18 to 24 month screening process.

In late December of 2004, it was revealed that Los Angeles Airport (LAX) was increasing its preparedness for a shoulder-fired missile attack. [Rand Holman of The Daily Polemic  had raised some troubling issues about this at the time, which are well worth revisiting.] John Miller, head of the LAPD Counterterrorism Bureau, explained that about 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles were currently on the black market. The black market prices range from $5,000 to $30,000, presumably based on the vintage of the weapon.

We have seen how cost conscious terrorists tend to be. Why waste an investment of $5000 to $30,000 when it turns out your target is beyond the range of your black market missile?

The laser activity is more than likely a target acquisition exercise.

And people are taking notes.

There are too many cities and too many locations reporting laser incidents. In my view, they are calculating maximum ranges, with no intent to blind the crew.

Our enemies know full well the impact another threat to aviation security would have on this Country. They are trying to crash airships and cripple our transportation industry before we can equip commercial aircraft with effective countermeasures. It is telling that the LAPD is moving to protect LAX against a missile threat against increasing incidents of lasers targeting commercial aircraft.

It's fine—as Phantom notes and as I mentioned earlier—that the Feds are soliciting bids for another missile-defense initiative designed to protect air traffic. But, if al Qaeda already is in the rehearsal stage, it's a bit late to go the high-tech route.

Right now, we need to figure out where those lasers have been coming from. Because—in all likelihood—that's where the missiles will be coming from next.

And if I had to venture a guess as to timing (given the uptick in al Qaeda's recent political messages), I'd peg the attack to Inauguration Day—a perfect moment to discredit the leader of the global war on terror, and just 10 days in advance of the elections in Iraq.

BONUS QUESTION: What do the following airports have in common: Salt Lake City International; San Diego International; Houston International; Rogue Valley International-Medford; Cleveland Hopkins International; Colorado Springs; Teterboro (NJ); and Pittsburgh International? A great deal may depend on the answer.

UPDATE: Beth at My Vast Right Wing Conspiracy comments on Phantom's theory: "This makes perfect sense to me. Obviously blinding a pilot could be an objective, but what about the co-pilot? What kind of sheer luck would it take to actually “succeed” in such a mission? I don’t know jack about any of the technical aspects of this, but the “blinding” theory just doesn’t make sense to me–it’s too simple, yet too improbable. The affected pilots haven’t been blinded, so what next? Do the terrorists (and yes, whoever is doing this IS a terrorist in my view) plan to just keep on aiming in the sky hoping for a lucky blinding hit before they’re caught?"

FURTHER UPDATE: Like the author of this blog (though perhaps not quite so obsessively), Michelle Malkin remains haunted by these recent cockpit incidents. She has a new post on the subject, which also quotes extensively from Phantom and also kindly quotes some of my thoughts above. (To have one's blog called "excellent" by Michelle is akin to having Tim Wakefield compliment you on your knuckleball pitch.) Phantom's original post has now collected some 40 comments (nearly all of them favorable) and hundreds of links across the blogosphere, so I suspect he may be on to something. Let's hope the homeland security folks are reading him too.

Posted by Rodger on January 1, 2005 at 11:02 PM | Permalink


Sorry. I can't buy the "range finding" argument for the lasers. That's just WAY too complicated. There are way too many locations right on a flight line on far too man airports to think that one needs to calculate anything. On those places, the better question might be why not a 50 cal instead of a missile and how do we stop that?

Also, I would think the plane is most vulnerable on takeoff, when it was fully loaded with fuel, in a steep climb, and can least afford to lose an engine if that's all the missile got. Any maneuver they want to make to get back costs speed and/or altitude. I haven't read first hand, but I get the impression most of the laser incidents are at around 10,000 ft. on approach.

Finally, it isn't necessarily an either/or question. It could be 99.99% kids and fools, and 1 terrorist. Who knows?

Posted by: Mike Gaffney | Jan 2, 2005 6:28:04 PM

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