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Next in flight: antimissile system

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On the record, DHS officials are neutral, stating only that they are doing as Congress directed and will report back as ordered. On background, several are skeptical whether this is the best use of DHS's limited resources.

Several homeland-security experts are less tactful, calling the idea everything from a "boon for a defense contractor" to "a waste of money." The most generous expert assessment came from Michael Greenberger, director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security at the University of Maryland.

"It's always hard to make these judgments," says Professor Greenberger. "It is wise to test to see how it works, but I just don't think it should be a priority, given that there are just so many other things we should be doing that we're not."

Incidents documented: 35

Shoulder-fired missiles are also known as "man-portable air-defense systems," or MANPADS. In an effort to judge the likelihood of a MANPADS attack in the US, the RAND Corp. undertook a major analysis in 2005. Since the 1970s, the study notes, more than 700,000 shoulder-fired missiles have been manufactured around the world. At least six terrorist organizations, including Al Qaeda, have a stockpile. Referring to a 2003 Congressional Research Service report, the study also notes that there have been 35 instances in which shoulder-fired missiles have been used to attack commercial aircraft, resulting in 500 casualties.

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