With the right military equipment, a single person can target a plane from three miles away using a heat-seeking missile. While such a nightmare is a rare occurrence, FedEx has applied to the FAA seeking approval to install a laser-based, anti-missile defense system on its cargo planes as an added safety measure.
The basics of how heat-seeking missiles work is mostly self-explanatory. They target and track a source of heat—such as the hot air coming out of a jet’s engine—and automatically make in-flight course adjustments so the missile reaches its target without any input from the weapon’s operator. They’ve been popularized in action movies, but the technology is far from infallible.
Military planes carry flares that can be remotely ignited and ejected by a pilot to throw off a heat-seeking missile’s targeting system with an alternate heat source, while the plane itself performs evasive maneuvers in an attempt to fool the incoming projectile. Those countermeasures are less effective for larger aircraft, however, with larger heat signatures as a result of multiple jet engines under each wing, and considerably less maneuverability than a fighter jet. An alternative solution is the use of a device that fires an infrared laser directly at an incoming missile in an attempt to disrupt its ability to track the aircraft’s heat signature. It’s not entirely unlike someone struggling to catch a baseball with the sun in their eyes, but with the sun actively tracking and targeting the person wearing the glove.
FedEx’s request to the Federal Aviation Administration, filed on Jan. 4, didn’t come completely out of left field, however. In 2008, the company worked with Northrop Grumman to test its anti-missile laser-based defense systems on 12 of the shipping company’s cargo planes for over a year. At the time, Northrop Grumman announced that its “system is ready to be deployed on civilian aircraft,” although no commercial orders had been placed at the time, according to a company spokesperson. That may have changed, however.
FedEx’s application to the FAA to allow it to install and use anti-missile systems on its Airbus Model A321-200 cargo planes doesn’t specifically mention Northrop Grumman’s hardware, so the shipping company could now be working with another company, but the proposed hardware is basically the same as what was tested back in 2008.
In the application document, which is “scheduled to be published in the Federal Register on Jan. 18,” FedEx cites “several incidents abroad” where “civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems” which are nearly impossible to detect given their range of operation, but undoubtedly a serious threat when operating aircraft in some parts of the world.
The biggest problem with FedEx’s application seems to be that the FAA’s “design standards for transport category airplanes did not envisage that a design feature could project infrared laser energy outside the airplane” and that the “FAA’s design standards are inadequate to address this capability.” As a result, the defense system is being considered a “novel or unusual design feature” and as such will be subjected to several special safety regulations given how dangerous intense infrared light can be to the skin and eyes of “persons on the aircraft, on the ground, and on other aircraft.”
These regulations will include the ability to completely disable the system while the airplane is on the ground to prevent “inadvertent operation,” a design that prevents inflight use from ever damaging the aircraft itself or risking the safety of the crew and passengers, even in the event of a system failure or accidental operation. They also require extensive markings, labels, warnings, and documentation for everyone from maintenance staff to ground crew, to pilots, warning them of the laser’s class and risks, including an addendum to the flight manual explaining the complete use of the system.
Once FedEx’s request is officially published in the Federal Register next week, the public is encouraged to send their comments and concerns about the proposed inflight defense system. Given people’s unfounded concerns over wireless networks like 5G, it’s safe to assume this special request will be met with some apprehension, particularly from those who have ‘done their research.’ But given how military equipment has found its way into many facets of American life, particularly law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine FedEx not getting the thumbs up to help protect the nation’s already fragile supply chain.