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Experts warn of missile threat

Pieces of TWA's jumbo jet were still burning when speculation first turned to the possibility that a terrorist's surface-to-air missile was responsible.

It is a fear shared by many in aviation, although the height Flight 800 had reached makes it unlikely that it was shot from the sky by a missile. Still, experts say the threat remains real for American passenger jets.

"When I first heard the news, I had the very uncomfortable feeling that a missile was responsible," said chemical engineer Marvin Schaffer, an expert on the missiles and consultant to the Rand Corp. think tank in Santa Monica, Calif.

In a study he presented to a 1994 aviation conference, Schaffer reported that 37 non-military aircraft worldwide had been shot down by surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) since 1978. All of those attacks against civilian airlines and private planes took place outside the United States in areas where conflicts or outright war was under way.

But Schaffer, the State Department and some in the Federal Aviation Administration have expressed concern that it is only a matter of time before a missile is used against a U.S. civilian jet. Flight 800, with its long glide up the coast near land but over water, seemed to fit the scenario experts have feared.

"Where it happened is the right point in space _ over water and on ascent or descent _ for it to have been a missile," Schaffer said. "But it may have been too high."

A 1994 report from the State Department said there "is a growing body of evidence" of a potential threat to U.S. civil aviation from surface-to-air missiles. The report detailed the thousands of U.S.-made Stingers and Soviet SA-7, SA-14 and SA-16 missiles distributed by the CIA and KGB to insurgents and governments from Afghanistan to Nicaragua.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. government provided at least 750 Stingers to Afghan rebels fighting the Soviets. Those missiles, which were sold and traded throughout the world by the rebels, have the capability to bring down a jet flying as high as 10,000 feet, but would be hard pressed to reach 13,700 feet, the height at which Flight 800 was flying.

Thousands more of the Soviet shoulder-launch SAMs were given by that government to Libya, Nicaragua and other countries. Many of those missiles, which have similar ranges to Stingers, have also found their way into the world black market at prices ranging from $20,000 to $100,000.

SAMs pose a particular threat to civilian aircraft because they are relatively lightweight, 20 pounds or so, have a reliable range approaching three miles and can be fired from a shoulder launcher.

The FAA has spent little time or money on protecting civilian aircraft from the threat. Schaffer said that's a mistake.

"We're spending all the money to detect bombs in airports, and it's certainly defensible to devote a lot of resources there, but the FAA is spending this trivial amount to research a very real threat from missiles," Schaffer said. "And do you know what they did with the money they did spend? They took an old plane into the desert and fired a SAM at it to film it when it blows up. They're making movies when they should be doing research."

FAA officials did not return telephone calls Friday. At the 1994 conference sponsored by the American Defense Preparedness Association, FAA security intelligence deputy director Michael Morse said the agency was quietly working to combat possible missile attacks.

But Schaffer and others think the agency needs to learn exactly where a SAM would hit different models of civilian aircraft and how to protect the vulnerable parts.

Most SAMs use heat-seeking devices for guidance. To defeat those relatively unsophisticated devices, airliners would need lasers or other available equipment that can scramble the missile's logic and throw it off course. The cost: an estimated $1-million per plane.

_ Information from the newsletter Tactical Technology and the magazine Air Transport World and Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

From the shoulder

The Stinger is an American-made, shoulder-launched missile that uses an infrared homing device to aim itself at the heat generated by an aircraft's engine. It is considered very effective against low-altitude, high-speed jets and helicopters.

The Stinger (U.S.)

Type: Man-portable, shoulder-fired surface-to-air guided missile.

Length: 5 feet

Weight: 34 pounds

Missile weight: 22 pounds

Warhead weight: 6.6 pounds

Range: 16,400 feet

Speed: 1,300 mph

Builder: General Dynamics

Guidance: Heat seeking

Firing the missile

The launching device, loaded with the Stinger missile, is hoisted onto the gunner's shoulder. He finds the target through the sight, and turns on the electrical switch. When he hears a continuous tone, indicating the target is being tracked, he aims above and ahead of the target to allow for the missile's drop. Then he fires. About 25 feet after launching, the missile is propelled by an igniting rocket motor.

Other widely used shoulder-launched missiles

SA-7 Grail (Russia)

Type: Man-portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air guided missile.

Length: 4 feet 3 inches

System weight: 42.25 pounds

Warhead weight: 5.5 pounds

Range: 9,840 feet

Speed: 1,100 mph

Guidance: Heat seeking

SA-14 Gremlin+ (Russia)

Type: Man-portable, shoulder-fired, surface-to-air guided missile.

Length: 4 feet 3 inches

System weight: 41.14 pounds

Warhead weight: 5.5 pounds

Range: 16,400 feet

Speed: 1,170 mph

Guidance: Heat seeking

+Note: Introduced in 1988 as a replacement for the SA-7. Although better than its predecessor, the SA-14 is still believed inferior to the U.S. Stinger

Sources: General Dynamics, Jane's Weapon Systems, Associated Press