Thursday, May 26, 2005

Terrorist missile threat prompts officials to inspect Canadian airports

Jim Bronskill
Canadian Press

OTTAWA (CP) - The threat of an airliner being destroyed by a shoulder-fired missile has prompted federal security officials to quietly survey the country's airports to gauge the risk.

Transport Canada teamed up with the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to conduct the "vulnerability assessments" at major Canadian air facilities. The agencies are concerned about possible terrorist use of Man-Portable Air Defence Systems, or MANPADS - small missile launchers long found in conflict zones.

"It's a potential threat, and that's enough for us to take it seriously," said Vanessa Vermette, a Transport Canada spokeswoman.

The international teams began visiting airports early last year and Canadian officials continue to carry out the studies, Vermette said. She declined to reveal what facilities, or how many, were involved.

"We can't really confirm which airports have had assessments because that would just leave it open to which airports have not."

Officials visited Halifax International Airport for briefings and inspections on the MANPADS issue last December, said Gina Connell, a spokeswoman for the city's airport authority.

Citing security reasons, she declined to provide details.

The missile devices, about two metres in length and weighing some 15 kilograms, can be bought on the black market for anywhere from a few hundred dollars for older models to upwards of a quarter-million dollars for newer ones, says a recent U.S. Congressional Research Service report.

It is believed that dozens of aircraft have been hit by the portable weapons.

The U.S. report cites six possible incidents in which large turbojet airliners came under attack. In two cases the planes were destroyed, killing a total of 171 people.

Jacques Duchesneau, president of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, underscored the concern about MANPADS in a speech last November.

"These weapons can be cheaply obtained, are easily carried and easily concealed."

Duchesneau noted that some suggest commercial aircraft, whose engines give off much less heat than military jets, are much harder for MANPADS to target, and question whether even a direct strike could take out a large plane.

"Honestly, though, I hope we never have to learn the hard way whether this is true," Duchesneau said.

"The fact that this past August two men were arrested and charged in New York State in a plot to purchase a shoulder-fired missile from an undercover agent demonstrates that we must exercise constant vigilance."

The Congressional Research Service report says most believe "no single solution exists" to the emerging problem.

It lists several options, including installation of defensive devices on planes, improving airport security and strengthening efforts to keep the missile launchers from spreading.

Transport Canada has worked with American counterparts on "a number of security initiatives," Vermette said.

"It's very much a knowledge-sharing kind of environment. And they've been doing their own research into things like anti-missile technology."

Canada is also working with other G-8 countries to develop means of countering the potential MANPADS threat.

Vermette declined to say whether any changes had been made to Canadian airports as a result of the evaluations done to date
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