The U.S. package delivery company FedEx recently applied for permission from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to modify some of its cargo planes with missile-defense laser systems, to allow them to continue flying in restricted air space.
According to FAA documents first revealed this week, FedEx submitted an application in October 2019 requesting permission to install a laser-based missile-defense system — which directs infrared laser energy toward heat-seeking missiles — on their Airbus Model A321-200 airplanes. The FAA documents are scheduled to be published on the Federal Register on Tuesday, after which the agency will request public comment on whether or not to approve the aircraft modification.
“In recent years, in several incidents abroad, civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS),” the documents state. “This has led several companies to design and adapt systems like a laser-based missile-defense system for installation on civilian aircraft, to protect those aircraft against heat-seeking missiles. The FedEx missile-defense system directs infrared laser energy toward an incoming missile, in an effort to interrupt the missile’s tracking of the aircraft’s heat.”
When commercial aircraft faces increased risks in contested regions of the world, the FAA typically restricts civilian air traffic, forcing them to take longer flight routes to ensure their safety. This new laser countermeasure could potentially allow FedEx to continue operating in contested regions of the world.
“Infrared laser energy can pose a hazard to persons on the aircraft, on the ground, and on other aircraft. The risk is heightened because infrared light is invisible to the human eye. Human exposure to infrared laser energy can result in eye and skin damage, and affect a flight crew’s ability to control the aircraft. Infrared laser energy also can affect other aircraft, whether airborne or on the ground, and property, such as fuel trucks and airport equipment, in a manner that adversely affects aviation safety.”
The FAA said its aircraft design standards did not envision a design feature that projects infrared lasers from aircraft. As such, the FAA’s current standards “are inadequate to address this capability.” The FAA said it has prepared some proposed safety conditions for the device but is requesting further public feedback.
The first condition is that the device must include a means to prevent accidental activation while on the ground. The second condition is that the device must not cause damage to its own aircraft, other aircraft, or individuals when used in-flight.
The FAA is also requesting safety and maintenance information for personnel interacting with the laser system, instructions for aircraft airworthiness, and instructions on when the system may be used.
Concerns about the safety of civilian aircraft in hostile areas are not new. Several civilian aircraft have been accidentally shot down in recent years. In 2014, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a Russian anti-aircraft missile while it flew over eastern Ukraine. In January of 2020, less than three months after FedEx requested FAA approval for the missile defense system, Iran shot down a Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 passengers on board.
According to Politico, Israel’s El Al airline service has already incorporated missile defense technology on its commercial aircraft.
The Air Force’s VC-25 aircraft, a modified version of the Boeing 747 which is used as the Presidential transport aircraft Air Force One, also uses both electronic and infrared countermeasures to protect against missiles.