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Workshop here eyes missile threat

| Thursday, April 15, 2004

The man hoisted a shoulder-to-air missile launcher into firing position and honed in on a helicopter he intended to bring down Wednesday at the 99th Regional Readiness Command in Moon Township, Allegheny County.

Satisfied with his aim, he pulled the trigger -- and missed his target.

The "shooter" was Moon police Chief Tom Krance, who took his turn with a mock weapon and video screen image of a helicopter during a training session about the potential threat that real shoulder-to-air missiles could pose to domestic airlines.

Representatives of the FBI, Coast Guard, state police, Allegheny County police, Moon police and fire departments and federal air marshals used the simulator during a daylong workshop about the weapons and how they could be smuggled into the country.

"It's a new world, and the reality is we have to look at this not whether this falls under our jurisdiction but how we can work on protecting the airport and the surrounding community together," Krance said.

Anti-terrorism officials often have warned that shoulder-to-air missiles are easy to use and even the most inexperienced fighter soon could learn to bring down aircraft.

For example, some people at yesterday's training hit a target on their first try, said Staff Sgt. Paul Shollenberger of the 213th Air Defense Battalion of the Army National Guard.

A shoulder-to-air launching system weighs about 40 pounds, costs an average of $30,000, and can be broken down into pieces that fit into a golf bag. The missiles can reach an altitude of 10,000 feet and have a range of about 5 miles.

The weapons use an infrared or heat-seeking system that directs the missile to an aircraft's engine exhaust. Military aircraft are equipped with defenses such as radar-jamming signals that deflect a missile, but commercial aircraft have no such devices.

Craig Martelle, the Transportation Security Administration's assistant federal security director for Pittsburgh International Airport, said the threat of a terrorist using shoulder-to-air missiles or similar weapons is not imminent, but the weapons are available through the black market.

"We wanted to make a presentation, especially to the people who are patrolling areas around the airport, to keep an eye out if things look out of place -- if someone has cut down foliage for a better view of the airport or tries to block a road," Martelle said. "We wanted people to get a look at these things and know what to look for if someone is trying to smuggle in pieces of it."

One of the few times such a weapon was used to target a commercial airplane was in November 2002, when al-Qaida terrorists fired at an Israeli airliner in Kenya. The missile missed, but the incident alerted safety officials to the threat.

Martelle said this is the first of a series of classes that will be presented in other cities with major airports. Officials said yesterday's presentation was not related to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge's visit to Moon earlier this month to announce a $12 million grant for the region's counterterrorism task force.

In January, Ridge's department formed an office to work with the Transportation Security Administration to determine where airports are vulnerable to missile attacks and to work with local law enforcement officials to reduce the risk.

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