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Foiling aircraft attacks isn't rocket science

MORE THAN two years after the horrifying airplane suicide attacks on the World Trade Center, there continues to be a depressing lack of focus on the possibility that thousands more could die in future attacks.


Commercial airplanes can be used to target nuclear power plants, chemical plants that produce large volumes of hazardous materials, liquid natural gas tankers, and skyscrapers. In spite of this threat, the Bush administration has succeeded only in changing the nation's air transport security system from one that was mostly dysfunctional to one that is largely dysfunctional.

It is time for the Bush administration to abandon its look-good feel-good approach to air transport security. Its failure to do so leaves the country in grave danger.

The sensible course is to use already proven technologies and operational procedures to build a truly secure air transport security system. One element of this system would be aimed at greatly increasing the situational awareness of crews on aircraft in flight. The other element would be technical and procedural steps that could make it nearly impossible for an aircraft to be used as a weapon of mass destruction. Multiple tiny video cameras could be placed throughout a plane's passenger compartment to record initial actions that might leadto a takeover. Wireless videocams could even be worn on the clothing of flight attendants. The doors to the cockpit should not only be strengthened so terrorists cannot gain access from the passenger compartment; sensors could be placed in the barrier to record any attempts to breach it. Biometric devices could be added to the aircraft control system so only authorized individuals could fly the aircraft.

Aircraft could also be fitted with a control system that prevented it from flying into prohibited space. The control system could use the Global Positioning Satellite System to monitor the location of the airplane and an onboard computer that would store the locations of all excluded airspace.

This "airspace exclusion system" could be designed so the crew could override it in emergencies but only after obtaining a "release code" from the air traffic control system.

There could be an additional black box on large aircraft to record all data from the many sensors. If the airplane was lost, this black box could provide much information for forensic analysis by security experts. If an alarm was set off indicating a possible hijacking, information from the sensors collected by the security black box could immediately be broadcast from the airplane through satellites that could relay the information to the ground.

All of these measures could be designed to provide the cockpit crew with timely information that they were under attack so they could take actions to prevent a takeover of the cockpit.

A chilling but necessary additional objective must be to provide the information we would want if we needed to shoot a plane down. None of our fighter pilots should ever have to face such an awful task without the comfort that their actions were surely needed to prevent a greater loss of life.

In addition to on-plane measures, there must be substantial off-plane information gathering. Areas surrounding planes on the ground should be monitored continuously. Even if such surveillance data could be used only after the fact, it would provide critical information when an incident needed to be reconstructed later.

The recent disruptions in international air travel are a warning that we cannot afford to wait another two years ignoring the threat. Cabin videocams can be installed quickly to increase the cockpit's awareness of the passenger compartment.

Other improvements, especially those intended to prevent an unauthorized person from diverting a jet into an exclusion zone, can and should follow quickly.

If there is a next attack with a commercial airliner that kills thousands of people, it will not be the result of clever, ruthless, and maniacal enemies; it will be the result of our own failure to protect ourselves by means that are already well within our reach.

Geoffrey Forden is a senior scientist in the Security Studies Program at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Theodore Postol is professor of science, technology, and national security policy in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society and the Security Studies Program at MIT.

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