LOS ANGELES – Counterterrorism officials are beefing up security at Los Angeles International Airport (search) to protect jetliners from terrorists armed with shoulder-launched missiles.
There is no immediate threat to aircraft, according to authorities, who said they were prompted to step up security because of recent overseas strikes against airliners, coupled with the availability of such weapons on the black market.
"The threat is real," said John Miller, head of the Los Angeles Police Department's counterterrorism bureau. "With about 20,000 of these available on the black market, for $2,000 to $3,000 each, there is no indication it will not be tried again."
Among the new measures are expanded helicopter surveillance, new perimeter fencing, stepped-up police patrols and additional training to help authorities identify such weapons.
While shoulder-launched missiles haven't been used against airliners in the United States, terrorists have fired missiles weighing less than 40 pounds at some two dozen commercial aircraft around the world.
Last year, terrorists armed with a shoulder-launched missile struck a DHL cargo jet taking off from Baghdad International Airport, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing. In November 2002, two shoulder-launched missiles nearly missed a jet carrying 271 people.
A study conducted by the Rand Corp. (search) concluded earlier this year that Los Angeles International Airport is "a particularly attractive target" for terrorists. Increased patrols and the use of such technology as powerful laser beams to intercept missiles could make the airport safer, Rand said.
According to security experts, the airport has been targeted in five attacks or attempted attacks by terrorists over the last three decades. One of the best known was an attempt to detonate a suitcase bomb at the airport on New Year's Eve 1999. The plot was foiled when an Algerian man was caught attempting to sneak the explosives into the United States from Canada.
To guard against shoulder-fired missiles, Sen. Barbara Boxer (search), D-Calif., has proposed equipping commercial planes with lasers that destroy the infrared guidance sensors on portable missiles.
The laser defense would cost about $1 million for each jetliner. C-17 military transport jets are already using such technology.