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Anti-Missile Gear Tested On FedEx Planes

Testing on an anti-missile defense system for commercial airliners has been completed and the system is ready to be deployed on civilian aircraft, defense contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. announced Wednesday.

Whether the system will be deployed is up to the airlines and the federal government, officials with the defense contractor said at a news conference where they displayed one of the nearly one dozen FedEx planes that were used to test the system for more than a year.

There have been no commercial orders for the system so far, according to Northrop spokesman Jack Martin.

The system uses lasers to confuse heat-seeking missiles. The cost of the removable units depends on the number ordered, but company officials said it would be less than $1 million each.

David Denton, director of the defense contractor's infrared countermeasures commercial program, said the system, developed from a similar military system, is fully automatic and has been tested in simulations involving multiple missiles.

Real missiles were not used during the testing, but the military version has successfully defeated actual missile launches, Northrop Grumman executive Jack Pledger told reporters.

Denton compared the system to using a flashlight to blind someone.

"If someone was going to throw a baseball to you for you to catch it and then flashed a light in your face, you're not going to be able to catch the baseball," Denton said.

The invisible laser is eye-safe, company officials said.

Pledger noted heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles have ranges of two to three miles and can hit planes at altitudes of up to 15,000 feet, which means a terrorist could be anywhere in a 300-square mile area around a runway and bring down a plane.

The Guardian system is similar to Northrop's Nemesis system, currently in use on dozens of military aircraft. The civilian system was developed under contract with the Homeland Security department.

London-based BAE Systems PLC has successfully tested a similar airliner defense system. Pledger said he was not familiar with the BAE program, but noted his company's system uses self-contained pods that can be quickly detached from aircraft and placed on other planes if they have been fitted with a mounting device. That means one unit could be used on multiple aircraft, which could be fitted with the system only when needed.

Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems were given $45 million each in 2004 to adapt military defense systems to civilian airliners. Military systems needed to be upgraded for commercial use because they require too much maintenance and mistakenly activate too often.

Earlier this month, Israel announced it will begin outfitting its airliners with defense systems designed to thwart missile attacks. Israeli military officials said the system they plan to use fires flares to distract an incoming missile's heat-seeking mechanism. The Israeli officials said they will be installed first on planes flying to destinations considered dangerous, especially in Africa and parts of Asia.

In 2002, an Israeli passenger jet was targeted after takeoff by Islamic militants using shoulder-fired missiles outside Mombasa, Kenya. The rockets missed, but prompted Israel to develop a civilian system.

Northrop shares fell 52 cents to close at $78.36 in trading Wednesday in New York.

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