Israeli tech uses lasers to protect civilian aircraft

"C-Music" is scheduled to be installed on all the country's airliners; foreign airlines hesitant to purchase due to lack of clear threat, cost.

El-Op Elbit C-Music system 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Elbit Sytems)
El-Op Elbit C-Music system 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Elbit Sytems)
Reports of 20,000 missing shoulder fired anti-aircraft rockets in Libya have sent shivers down the spines of many airline security officials, who fear they may find their way into the hands of terrorists. US Senator Barbara Boxer has already called for hundreds of American jetliners to be outfitted with protection from such threats.
No such commercially available protection system exists, yet. But an Israeli company has developed the world’s only civilian system that can be mounted on a passenger liner, which detects incoming missiles and -- without shooting them down -- deflects them with laser technology.
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Called the C-Music, it is designed for both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters and is expected to be available on the market shortly, having already received the necessary certification from civil aviation authorities around the world, said Adi Dar, general manager of El-Op Ltd., one of the leading electro-optics companies in the world.
“We see a huge potential for this application,” Dar told The Media Line. “The market out there is huge. You can do the math yourself, but there are thousands of helicopters and hundreds of strategic planes.”
Two years ago, the Israeli government awarded a $79 million contract to El-Op, a wholly owned subsidiary of Elbit Systems one of the world’s top 50 defense contractors, to develop the missile defense system for commercial passenger liners operating by the Israeli airlines El Al, Arkia and Israir as part of a “Sky Shield” air transport defense plan.
The impetus for developing a missile defense system for commercial airliners came following the attempt by al-Qaida to shoot down an Israeli passenger plane in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002.
El-Op gave journalists on Wednesday a look at the system, which is in its final stages of development. Mike Yanuv of El-Op, said C-Music was an acronym for: Commercial-Multi Spectral Infrared Countermeasure against shoulder-fired missiles. It is based on what is known as the DIRCM, or directional infrared countermeasure system.
“This system is being installed on all the civilian air liners in Israel. I can’t give you the timeframe, but we are at the very advanced stages of development,” he said.
It works by detecting and tracking any shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launched at the host aircraft. When the missile gets within a certain range, C-Music fires a laser directly at the missile’s seeker, deflecting it from the plane. It has a smaller design turret for helicopters, business and special mission aircraft and a larger self-contained pod with more powerful lasers and multiple detectors commercial airliners, aerial tankers and large business aircraft.
Yanuv said the system is superior to the Flight Guard, produced by the rival Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), since it used a laser rather than pyrotechnic flares to divert the incoming missile from its course. The IAI system has encountered difficulties with US and European civil aviation authorities, which have refused to certify out of safety concerns.
“Our system has all the required licensing,” Yanuv said.
El-Op declined to give the price for the system, but Israeli reports have said each one costs about $1.2 million.
“It has potential, but it is expensive,” aviation expert Danny Shalom told The Media Line. “In Israel, the government is footing the bill for the system. Commercial airliners around the world would need to be obligated to install this by their governments or given subsidies before I can see sales taking off there.”
Arie Egozi, an aviation writer for Israel Defense website, added that commercial aviation companies are likely to be reluctant to acquire it since they don’t yet see that serious a threat. The pod would also cut into revenue, since it takes up the space equivalent to three passenger seats.
According to US State Department figures, more than 40 civilian planes have been hit by surface-to-air missiles since the 1970s. Shalom said the missing anti-aircraft missiles in Libya, known as MANPADS for man-portable air defense system, constituted a very serious threat to global aviation.
Dar, of El-Op, acknowledged that while the military market was fertile, commercial airlines are taking their time about purchasing the technology because the need for protection from MANPADS had not yet been driven home.
“When we look into the future four or five years from now, just as we have electronic warfare suites on every [military] platform, I am confident that every platform will have a DIRCM to protect it against missiles,” Dar said.