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Next in flight: antimissile system

Three 767s will start running the technology in April, but experts question this use of homeland-security resources.

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There's no doubt that a shoulder-fired missile in the hands of a terrorist presents a threat to commercial airplanes.

But how serious is it compared with other tactics that terrorists could employ? And how much should the United States spend to thwart such an attack?

Those questions have gained new salience, in part, because in April, the first tests of technology to counter shoulder-fired missiles will begin aboard commercial airplanes.

Three American Airlines 767s that fly daily between New York and Los Angeles will be fitted with little laser-equipped robots designed to detect and divert shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles. The tests, however, don't involve shooting any missiles at commercial planes, homeland-security officials stress. The goal is to see how the technology stands up to the wear and tear of daily flights, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) notes.

Advocates say that this defensive system is essential to protecting America from another devastating terrorist attack on the aviation system – one that could cost hundreds of lives and tens of billions of dollars. But they also acknowledge that it will be expensive: Just to equip all commercial planes would cost an estimated $11 billion, which is before maintenance and operation costs.

Opponents, including major US airlines – even American, which is nonetheless cooperating with the test – argue that such a system would be a wasteful use of limited homeland-security dollars. The money, they say, could be better spent on less-expensive defenses and more-immediate threats. In addition, the technology has documented high failure rates, they note.

The debate has pitted the airlines against some powerful members of Congress, who have passed legislation mandating that DHS carry out this current $29 million test.

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