FedEx has applied for permission from the Federal Aviation Authority to install infrared laser countermeasures protecting their cargo jets from incoming heat-seeking missiles, according to a publication to the Federal Register.
Why? The company believes there is now a need to protect civilian aircraft from such attacks. This is in the wake of multiple missile attacks that have happened abroad over the past few years, with one notable case being Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17.
“In recent years, in several incidents abroad, civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS),” writes FedEx in their application.
“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.”
The new systems would come into production on FedEx’s Airbus Model A321-200 aircraft – not yet serving as part of the cargo fleet – but must first gain permission from the regulatory bodies. Doing so may pose a tricky task, as while the infrared lasers are great at disrupting heat-seeking missiles, they may also damage the pilots and passengers within the aircraft.
At high enough power, these lasers are capable of seriously damaging eyesight and even skin they come into contact with – but while visible lasers are relatively avoidable, infrared lasers are invisible to the naked eye. As such, they do not trigger the "blink reflex", allowing the laser to continuously damage the retinas of the unfortunate recipient.
To mitigate this risk, FedEx proposes multiple avoidance strategies, as well as special measures to be included in the safety standards to ensure the lasers are adequately managed.
This is not the first time anti-missile defense systems have been implemented in civilian aircraft. Flight Guard, manufactured by Elta systems, is a family of defense systems that use radar to detect incoming threats and deploy countermeasures, and have been installed in aircraft in many of Israel’s flight companies that regularly travel over high-risk areas.
FedEx themselves have even deployed a directed infrared system, akin to the modern version they are seeking approval for, on many of their aircraft, called the Northrop Grumman Guardian. This was part of an active effort by the Department of Homeland Security to repurpose military countermeasures for civilian craft following multiple attacks by shoulder-launched missiles (MANPADS).