Israel’s passenger jets are to be fitted with a laser defence system to protect them against ground-based missile attacks amid fears that arms stolen from Libya could fall into terrorists’ hands.
It follows intelligence reports that large quantities of weapons have gone missing in Libya and been smuggled across the border to Sinai in Egypt or Gaza, including surface-to-air missiles.
The Israelis believe the arms have been sold to terrorist organisations, including Palestinian factions.
The Israeli government is footing the bill to equip all civilian aircraft with the missile defence system, at an estimated cost of £600,000 per aircraft, The Sunday Times reports.
The system, which is said to be in its final stages of development, includes a thermal camera to detect a missile launch; a tracker to lock onto an approaching missile and a laser beam designed to target and deflect the threat. It would be fully automatic and require no input from the flight deck.
Watch a demonstration of how the technology works below:
El Al Airlines planes that fly to areas where the threat of a missile attack is considered high are already equipped with a basic anti-missile system – called “Flight Guard” – capable of detecting an approaching missile, warning the crew and using flares to divert a heat-seeking missile from its course.
The system was adapted for civilian aircraft following a failed attempt to bring down an Israeli airliner with two missiles just after take-off in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002.
The missiles missed the plane, which was carrying 271 passengers.
But aviation authorities in Europe and the US have banned El Al jets equipped with the system from landing at airports, because of safety concerns.
Despite the ban, the US is worried that Moammar Gaddafi’s weapons stockpiles represent a real threat to aviation and has dispatched former military personnel to Libya to help track down and destroy surface-to-air missiles.
According to US State Department figures, more than 40 civilian planes have been hit by surface-to-air missiles since the 1970s.