Friday, November 11, 2011

Missile-Free Flights on El Al Airlines

Still trying to conquer that fear of flying? Israel's El Al Airlines may be able to help. According to anonymous Israeli defense officials, the Israeli government has ordered an acceleration of the missile defense program for its national airline, in response to reports that Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have acquired anti-aircraft weapons from Libya.

Known as “C-Music,” the Israelis' new aircraft defense system will employ laser technology to jam the heat-seeking mechanisms in enemy missiles, throwing them off target. Since the addition of the bathtub-sized laser pods will significantly increase drag coefficients at work on each plane, annual fuel costs for the El Al fleet are expected to increase by several million dollars. Prime Minister Netanyahu has reportedly promised that the government will cover the higher fuel bill, as well as the cost of installing the defense system on El Al's planes. With 100 planes scheduled to receive the upgrade, the total cost of the project is estimated at a cool $135 million. Reports from Reuters Canada indicate that the new system will make its first commercial appearance in 2013.

For those unwilling to postpone travel plans for the next two years, fear not – El Al is already more defense-minded than your average Southwest Airlines flight. After Islamist extremists attempted to shoot down an Israeli passenger flight near Mobasa, Kenya with shoulder-fired missiles in 2002, the government authorized the installation of the “Flight Guard” system in passenger jets servicing destinations with significant militant activity. When the system detects a direct threat, it deploys decoy flares designed to lure any heat-seeking missiles away from the plane and its unsuspecting civilian passengers. To ensure that these unsuspecting passengers remain that way, the flares are apparently designed to be invisible to the naked human eye; that way, passengers won't panic if the flares are ever deployed mid-flight.  (Whether or not the system actually works as designed is still in question.)

Struggles against surface-to-air attacks are nothing new or noteworthy for the Israelis. Despite aggressive blockade efforts to combat smuggling since Hamas took control of the Gaza region in 2007, militants have successfully imported weapons and supplies over the Egypt-Gaza border through a series of underground tunnels, which have been the subject of attacks and threats by both the Israeli and Egyptian governments throughout the year. In August 2011, Palestinian forces unsuccessfully deployed shoulder-fired missiles against an Israeli military helicopter in pursuit of militants across the Egypt-Israeli border into the Sinai Desert. However, with an estimated 20,000 shoulder-fired missiles in Libya's arsenals prior to the start of the Arab Spring uprisings, reports on the looting of unguarded weapons depots by al-Qaeda branches and other combatants are understandably of concern to Israel during a particularly shaky period of regional instability.

Perhaps more interestingly, the state's move towards increased flight security could also portend future reconsideration of territorial conflicts. During closed-door meetings on the new airline defense system, Netanyahu reportedly indicated that the system could help reassure the public if the government ever chose to turn over occupied territory to the Palestinians under a peace agreement. While the Prime Minister's spokesman didn't officially confirm the veracity of these remarks, he did note that “in any possible peace deal, there have to be effective security arrangements that can deal with a range of security threats, including shoulder-fired missiles.” In light of Palestine's ongoing and well-publicized efforts to gain UN recognition, could this be considered an early sign that Israel may be willing to reapproach the bargaining table? “Peace in the Middle East” may be as uncertain as ever, but if Israel is to be believed, you can now at least watch that in-flight movie stress-free (and missile-free) during your next trip to Tel Aviv.

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