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FedEx: equip aircraft with countermeasure against heat-seeking missiles [pdf] (federalregister.gov)
90 points by jaredwiener 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 94 comments

El-Al has flown with anti-missile defense on commericial aircraft for a while now. Flares since 2004, at least: http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/meast/05/24/air.defense/ , and probably upgrades since.

This isn't all that newsworthy to me. I assume FedEx flies into a variety of places where they could be a legitimate target. This probably just means the laser technology is now affordable enough to justify installing it.

Edit: A link to a military anti-missle IR countermeasure device. Might be helpful to see how they work: http://img.bemil.chosun.com/nbrd/data/10067/upfile/201503/20...

I believe there are DIRCM systems in use now which blind missile seekers using gimbaled laser beams.

The one offered by Elbit and in use on some Israeli airliners is called C-MUSIC: https://elbitsystems.com/pdf/c-music/

That infographic designer really phoned it in. "Diverts missiles away from your plane...to the airport terminal!"

That's great...missed it when I looked before. Like he couldn't find an angle to show it directed onto some far side of the runway apron in the grass. Nope. Right into the gate area.

Have they ever actually needed it? Did it work?

This isn't FedEx's first rodeo into aircraft defense systems:


I'm feeling like we're in a Cyberpunk universe, everyone will soon go around fully armed :)

Just without the Cyberpunk design aesthetic :(

Not enough neon.

This stuff seems more cyberpunk than neon: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wy4q_-5cRuM

oh. That's clever!

You're looking at the sky over the port through the analog eyes.

>everyone will soon go around fully armed

welcome to rural america

My tattoo says "poor impulse control", how about yours?

I'm looking forward to firearms as a fashion statement.

"Infrared laser energy can pose a hazard to persons on the aircraft"

"affect a flight crew’s ability to control the aircraft"

How would the infrared laser impact the aircraft originating the laser (i assume there's no way the laser would be pointed at the aircraft its mounted on)?

Basically, the safety analysis will have to show that it the risk to people on-board is mitigated. Ways the risk can be realized are basically by reflection -- even secondary and tertiary reflections of infrared lasers can be dangerous, since the beam energy is quite high and the blink reflex isn't triggered. Concerns would be things like glancing reflections off water, reflections off buildings, etc. Posssible mitigations would include having an independent monitoring system disable the laser if it would intersect the ground (likely required to mitigate hazards to people on the ground anyway), IR notch filters on the windscreens to prevent reflections from entering the cockpit (or laser safety glasses required in situations where it may be used), etc. This is generally the aviation mindset -- a rigorous exploration of what can go wrong (and sometimes, the answer is "not much", but even that needs to be considered and quantified) with multiple layers of mitigation to get the risk to acceptable levels.

That's all very well, but surely you'd only turn the enormous laser on if there were a heat-seeking missile bearing down on you, in which case the laser represents the safer option even without any risk mitigations.

You'd only turn it on if your sensing system had a positive detection for a missile... any such system has its own failure modes, and while it's true that a sensing system with few false positives is a mitigation to hazards to the pilots, you have to consider the system as a whole. Especially if heat-seeking missiles fired at cargo planes are rare (and from what I can tell, they are), you expect the majority of activations to be false positives.

Curious if you could do this quick enough via a simple detector in the cockpit. Is there a time interval that is short enough that the laser has basically no chance of harm?

In terms of time constants: Yes, probably. Visible lasers can be eye-safe at much higher powers because of the blink reflex, and the blink reflex is on the order of a hundred milliseconds -- detecting IR and shutting down even a gas laser should be millisecond-scale at most. One challenge would be very specular reflections that hit an eye but not your sensor, but a wide-area sensor should be able to get reflections even off the pilot's eye itself. The remaining bit would be very high frequency specificity on the sensor to allow high sensitivity without false positives, but that's pretty trivial.

Why is the blink reflex not triggered by these reflections?

Because we don't see in infrared.

> A pop or click noise emanating from the eyeball may be the only indication that retinal damage has occurred i.e. the retina was heated to over 100 °C resulting in localized explosive boiling accompanied by the immediate creation of a permanent blind spot

Terrifying stuff https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laser_safety


"Please turn off all cell phones and other electronic devices, including energy weapons."

It could bounce back from a reflective surface somehow and hit a cockpit or cabin window, though you'd need to be flying really low or at an unreasonably steep angle to be concerned about that. They're probably just trying to cover all possible bases though.

They could be implying its an all-aspect jammer which is effective against air to air missiles while only verbally discussing the ground threat.

Civilians always think of ECM and jamming like a smooth omnidirectional output, yet it seems to me pretty obvious a kaleidoscope like randomish distribution would work much better as a jammer, so they have to assume that 0.00001% of the time the entire laser beam might hit water and reflect right back into their eyes. I suppose a REALLY smart AI controlled jammer could actively control its jamming signal to never output power in a direction that would reflect back at the plane, which would probably shimmer at like 10000 Hz as the plane wiggles thru the sky, so on average the plane would be well protected.

You know its a REALLY bad neighborhood if they try stealth technology to defeat incoming radar guided missiles. That's really hard core air transport operations.

Kind of makes you wonder if "ufo sightings" aren't air force stealth air transport vehicles. AFAIK there are no unclassified stealth air transport vehicles, but you'd think that would be terribly useful if you don't have total air superiority so either us or the Russians must have at least blueprints somewhere for something like a B-2 that can carry people and/or a tank or two. Or maybe fedex will restart the B-2 production line...

Would a typical person-launched SAM do enough damage to bring down a multi-engine plane such a as 737?

I'm assuming such missiles home in on precisely one engine. But AFAIK, planes like that are supposed to be operable on only one engine. I imagine the missile would do some damage to nearby parts of the plane as well, and I'm curious how likely that is to be survivable.

An Airbus A300 was hit with a portable SAM over Baghdad in 2003. The missile struck the wing instead of the engine and caused the loss of all hydraulics. The crew was able to land by steering with the engines. So while this aircraft did survive, it very easily could have gone the other way.


Person-launched SAMs are known as MANPADS. A number of these missiles have been fired against civilian aircraft https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man-portable_air-defense_syste...

Unlikely to be survivable for an airliner. Most air to air missiles are designed not to hit the target but to blow up close to it and destroy the aircraft using the shockwave. So it may target an engine exhaust but the explosion will damage the wing and main fuselage as well.

It depends on the missile, some designs also have metal rings that are designed to expand and damage or sever the aft fuselage. The sidewinder is an interesting example, as some different versions have used different warheads.

Even if the place survives a hit the costs in both opportunity while the plane is down and repairs out-weigh the cost of equipping it with relatively cheap countermeasures.

Hard to tell, the planes are not designed or certified to survive attack by surface-to-air missiles. The systems just aren't designed with that assumption in mind.

You know the wings double as fuel tanks, right?

Yes, but I also suspect that many airplanes have safety systems (e.g., emergency fuel cutoff valves) which I'm ignorant of. So I'm not really qualified to make guesses on this topic.

What are the advantages of an IR laser, as opposed to flares which seem to be a more conventional and widely-used countermeasure?

Lower maintenance, lower cost, and higher safety. Having something that is designed to start a fire permanently attached to an aircraft isn't ideal even at the best of times.

If you're going in/out of warzones, the trade-offs could absolutely make sense but as a "standard feature" a IR laser is inexpensive and works "well enough."

capex vs opex. Unless they burn the laser out its pretty cheap to operate.

Also its going to be very difficult to file an insurance claim with evidence that grannie or some amateur astronomer or hunter looking thru binocs got cataracts because a specific fedex plane flew over, but when a flare starts a fire there's usually enough debris in the wreckage to prove where it came from.

Was there an inciting incident to induce FedEx to head in this direction?

They cite vague comments of short range manpads style attacks having happened in the past.

Some interesting background, the A321-200 is kind of an older passenger plane and part of aging out is there's a big push to convert and sell as freighter and Fedex bought a couple dozen.

Generally the big push to sell the A321 as a freighter is to use it for long distance line haul service so this is going between Shenzhen and some customs clearing warehouse in the USA or central hub. So this is international every trip and not dropping at your local field to do local delivery. So they're kind of implying anticipation of unrest in either Shenzhen or NYC, not just some random farm community in Canada or whatever.

There are certain implications in relying on IR for missile protection; the simplest and most foolproof way to protect against short range IR missiles is to control the land for a couple miles around in every direction aka build a giant airport in the rural middle of nowhere and surround it with a fence and short range can't hit. This jammer is only useful against a threat where there's an urban built up environment around the airport. Its to protect against a threat when landing at O'Hare not when landing at that airport in Denver that is (used to be?) 50 miles out of town. So they're installing this in expectation of civil unrest generally out east in the big urban cities, not out west, at least in the USA. So that's interesting. Of course with covid, everyone who can flee the big cities already has or is trying to, so that has implications also.

>to use it for long distance line haul service so this is going between Shenzhen and some customs clearing warehouse in the USA or central hub

Uh, why would FedEx not fly other international routes, e.g. to the Middle East?

>. This jammer is only useful against a threat where there's an urban built up environment around the airport.

No, the attempted downing of the DHL A-300 starting from Baghdad using a manpads was done from outside the city. The plane was at 2400m already.

> So they're kind of implying anticipation of unrest in either Shenzhen or NYC

Unlikely. There are other places where international shipping currently happens that already are experiencing unrest, and planes are already being shot at: eastern Europe, north Africa, the middle east.

They're going to use an A321 for long distance line haul?

The Middle East to Europe and Asia seems more likely.

they dont mention any specifically, but say: "In recent years, in several incidents abroad, civilian aircraft were fired upon by man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS). 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"

Jesus. How much do those pilots get paid? Like $60k/year?

GlassDoor says FedEx pilots make an average of $239k/year, plus some bonuses.

That's still not enough to have missiles fired at you, IMO.

Widely varies. It's a crappy "time working for this specific employer" based seniority system.



I believe fedex also overflies many territories that might be hostile to US interests. I believe they continue to overfly Belarus, after most US/EU passenger aircraft have stopped.

The other hint is the timing

> On October 16, 2019, FedEx applied for a supplemental type certificate to install a laser-based missile-defense system

This was the only airliner shot down in the 10 years prior, it has to be the incident that inspired this.


That wasn't shot down with IR manpads though. The likely suspect is a vehicle mounted radar based system.

Most manpads don't pose a threat at reasonable cruise altitude. They're more of a takeoff/landing threat. There's a minimum warhead size to do the job and a minimum fuel required to get it to a given altitude. Anything that can reach an airliner at a typical cruising altitude is going to be vehicle mounted for the foreseeable future.

Yes, it's described in the application.

Fear of a threat from Russian (or Russian-aligned/equipped rebels) forces shooting down FedEx planes, or a secret DoD plan to convert FedEx's fleets into weapons platforms?

>a secret DoD plan to convert FedEx's fleets into weapons platforms?

Related: China Building Long-Range Cruise Missile Launched From Ship Container. Disguised weapon turns freighters into warships, ports to missile bases


That's not entirely unrealistic. In the 70s and 80s there was a USAF program to convert passenger 747 airplanes into surveillance planes and missile launch platforms (under the designation "E-4"). Soviet fear of those militarized 747s contributed to the shoot-down of KAL007.

Is it supported by fact? You know as noted then it was one of the first death of IT workers in those days. I do not think I would accept Soviet Union justified that in any way. They can send in plane to fight eve it down and show to the world that if truth. Not shooting it down.

The fear was that it was a military-operated plane using the same shape as a civilian plane, which was a real thing the USAF was using at the time. The plane had, completely by accident, flown directly over a missile test in progress. It didn't respond to attempts to contact it because the pilots weren't listening on the right channels, and they didn't notice the warning shots across the nose because it was too dark and cloudy.

When, by complete coincidence, KAL007 climbed to a higher flight level for fuel efficiency moments after the soviet interceptors obtained missile lock, the air defense commanders took that as confirmation that it was a USAF E-4 taking evasive action, not a civilian 747, and ordered the shoot-down.

> moments after the soviet interceptors obtained missile lock

So it would have been shot down anyway, with or without "confirmation". This is just the Soviets being paranoid trigger happy like they were when they downed flight MH17 and also one of their own flights shot by mistake in 2001 during an Ukrainian/Russian military exercise.

No, you you misunderstand the incredible coincidence here. The pilots, thinking they were about to arrive in Japanese airspace, requested and recieved permission to climb to a higher altitude. At that very moment, the soviet fighters had obtained missile lock.

The plane suddenly began to climb, losing speed and resulting in the interceptors overshooting and needing to maneuver to get back in line with the plane. From their perspective, it was a well timed and effective evasion of the first missile, but the Korean pilots still had no clue.

I mean think about it from their persepctive, this plane is visually indistinguishable from a military plane built specifically built to conduct surveillance operations doing a perfectly timed flyover of a missile test, not responding to communications or warning shots, and apparently dodging an AA missile. The soviets were paranoid, sure, but that situation is one in a million.

> a secret DoD plan to convert FedEx's fleets

There is the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, of which FedEx is a member.


FedEx plane are everywhere some of them are probably doing signal intelligence for a long time.

Last time those rebels used Buk^, which is radar-guided, so IR-countermeasures won’t help.

^ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buk_missile_system

“On 19 June 2019, the Dutch Public Prosecution Service charged four people with murder in connection with the shooting down of the aircraft: three Russians, Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, and Oleg Pulatov, and one Ukrainian, Leonid Kharchenko.”


The only rebel on that list is possibly the last one, the Ukrainian guy, although I'm not so sure about him either. All the others are vereran Russian military officers who fought in Afghanistan and Northern Caucasus. The first guy is a former FSB officer. Currently all of them are wanted war criminals.

Was the order of the wording of the title deliberately chosen to make people think FedEx wants heat seeking missiles on their planes?

Ok, I've reordered the title to squeeze an 'against' in there.

(Submitted title was "FedEx proposes equipping aircraft with heat-seeking missile countermeasure [pdf]")

"Heat seeking missile countermeasures" seems pretty obviously about countering heat seeking missiles at least to me.

I personally had no problem interpreting the title correctly, but I see that it could be interpreted as the heat seeking missiles are the countermeasures against something else. Not sure it warrants being changed, though.

Yes when you read it in full without skimming. But when you put so many modifiers on a given predicate, it’s easy for the human mind to skip the one that changes the context. Another way to get might be “FedEx proposes defense against heat-seeking missiles”, where defense can get separated out. I’m sure even better writers could find a way that simplifies and reduces likelihood for comprehension error.

anti-HSM countermeasures

This is slightly off-topic, but between this and the articles on raids on LA trains[1], I really do feel like we are living in a Snow Crash universe.

[1] https://theweek.com/crime/1008994/thieves-raid-rail-cars-for...

This is interesting, similar issues in places like South Africa where RAMPENT theft from trains and of train equipment is common (equipment can often be sold for scrap metal value).

It can totally bog up commerce when these losses start to get high.

In South Africa one factor is that crime has in general very little consequence. I'm not sure what the prosecution and conviction rates are for these thefts here in California but if those are low enough there may be limited deterrent.

You hit the nail on the head. If the stolen articles are worth less than $950 it's a simple misdemeanor that may not even get prosecuted. Speaking of prosecution, San Francisco's Chesa Boudin is facing a recall election because of his prosecutorial policies and his apparent lack of concern for victims. His predecessor wasn't much better — and he moved to L.A. and is the District Attorney down there.

These are great days for criminals in California. Organized shoplifting, car burglary, & looting rings are raking in cash. Even if you do get some time behind bars, you'll almost certainly be either let out early because of the 'Rona, or your sentence will be suspended because the crime wasn't violent & nobody got seriously injured.

NYC is on its way to becoming a similar utopia for antisocial criminal predators. But hey, this is apparently what the voters want...

The train robberies and breakdown of civil order in CA remind me of Atlas Shrugged much more than Snow Crash.

A manifesto pretending (lazily) to be a novel, Atlas Shrugged is a sophomoric work of prescriptive pretension, not the type which observes and reports in verisimilitude a plausible description of human affairs.

In short your comment is an insight to you, and only an insight to California in as much as one accepts Objectivism as a thoughtful (haha! is my opinion) framework for grokking reality.

Well Snow Crash describes a world with VR where a "visual stimulus" can lock people into their own heads, or make them slaves to an over mind. There might have been an "auditory stimulus" too...

Based on summaries of Atlas Shrugged, I believe that it describes a world in which real physical objects and locations are targeted for theft and destruction.

So your comment is a bit aggressively personal.

I too found the response to Atlas Shrugged comment to be oddly agressive. I always find it curious whenever people hate on the book. I want to ask, what about the book was so offensive?

I would summarize the story of Atlas Shrugged as the collapse of USA caused by an incompetent government whose policies rob and persecute the productive industrialists who have the competency to keep the country infrastructure going.

One of the protagonists runs a railroad company. I don't think there was actually any train robbing, but towards the end of the downfall, gangs were extorting money to let her trains enter and exit stations.

I can't remember much from Snow Crash, read it too long ago. I think one protagonist was a courier, and the book took place in a distopian future.

I will do the politeness of responding, as recompense for the passion of my dismissal.

> I want to ask, what about the book was so offensive?

I would be dishonest not to admit my dislike's passion was conceived in frustration with the book's fans. "Offense," though I don't affirm the label, arises on interaction with Objectivists.

Atlas Shrugged eloquently explicates Objectivism's fundamental lack of empathy - its denial of carnality, passion, humanity, animism, pleasure, pain, misfortune, fate: all sense, no sensibility. The plot, finding its villain in democratic government and indeed all society, and for its heroes a set of selfish, sexless, and statuesque Scrooges, is the denial. So is merely the style: the stodginess of conversation and thought, the relentless rationality of the action. It has no scene containing a believably real corner of society, be it a family, a friendship, or civil society. All argument is intellectual, all triumphs transparently ideological.

It is a badly-written novel for precisely the same reasons Objectivism is a poor philosophy. To see someone read it and embrace it as wisdom maddens.

And such someones abound in America! One might conclude every man (indeed, this is man's ideology) fancies himself a temporarily embarrassed John Galt. Rich Americans too love Rand's ideas - and are surely delighted so many of the citizenry affirm their own superiority. Rich objectivists mock openly their noblesse oblige, and have no qualms in setting the Republic against itself in pursuit of continually lower taxation.

Human social projects are not clockwork systems, but each, since the time we first surpassed the society of apes, is an idiosyncratic novelty. Humanity itself is a singular species, exceptional in our power of rational understanding but roundly unable to apply the talent when considering our own teleology. We overestimate the utility of our pattern-matching and are easily seduced by just-so reductionism.

Not incidentally, Marxism shares Objectivism's flawed empathy; the two philosophies are fastidiously symmetrical. That Rand's intellectual rebellion would reject her oppressor's dogma, but not its mode of analysis, seems unsurprising. We all struggle to escape the modes of critical thought we first learned, even as our conclusions mutate.

Rand might have been hoped to see this in herself, but then again, such self-awareness she implicitly rejected.

"a sophomoric work of prescriptive pretension, not the type which observes and reports in verisimilitude a plausible description of human affairs."


Isn't the literal plot of Atlas Shrugged trains being looted? Govt not preventing issues? Not sure the sophomoric work has to "reports in verisimilitude a plausible description of human affairs" to remind someone of a parallel?

The book itself sold 9M copies I think. I personally couldn't get through it as it's not my style particularly, but I could see how someone would find a parallel.

What do you actually hate about Objectivism and/or Ayn Rand? Can you be specific?

The kind of comment you've made only ever comes from people who have some deeper problem with the philosophy or the book. Actually, nobody who just reads it as a novel ever thinks it's lazy, prescriptivist, pretentious, etc. These kinds of critiques only ever come from people with an "axe to grind."

I will do the politeness of responding, as recompense for the passion of my dismissal. If you be so kind, see my response in another subthread. I promise there is no shortage of pretense!

I'm not really clear on why people are surprised about these thefts. Isn't train robbery a western film trope? Maybe we've culturally forgotten trains, but they're the mitochondria, the powerhouse of the cell. Train chicanery was even an integral part of the civil war.

In America, the train hasn't been that vital to infrastructure since the era that inspired the trope. Trucks move 7 times more value annually [https://www.bts.gov/newsroom/2017-north-american-freight-num...].

Frieght rail carries a stupid amount of goods. If you use a carrier like Hub Group or JB Hunt to ship containers cross country odds are the bulk of the mileage is on rail. This is doubly true for bulk goods. Nobody is hauling bulk goods very far by truck.

If you live in a major urban area you'd never see it though because the intermodal facilities tend to be at or beyond the beltway (more efficient to truck the last 20-100mi).

Trains absolutely are vital, unless you think 2,500,000 tonne-km could be added to the highways -- already carrying 3,000,000 tonne-km [1].

Trains also do that with only 10% of the fuel [2].

I'm not sure what the table you link is showing. Is it $-km, or $-journeys?

[1] https://www.bts.gov/us-tonne-kilometers-freight

[2] https://www.bts.gov/content/fuel-consumption-mode-transporta...

that's because the majority of economic activity are near ports where train wouldn't be as useful. as a result the bulk of goods transported by train are to the lower populated areas where again the last mile is done by truck.

doesn't make trains not vital.

Is this going to be an extra-cost option when shipping?

  [ ] Saturday Delivery
  [ ] Signature Required
  [X] SAM Protection

It will definitely get FedEx a discount on their reinsurance policy for freight service.

Picturing myself signing up for State Farm renter's insurance in a place like Portland, Oregon:

"Does your apartment building have a system-wide fire alarm? A barbed wire fence? A SAM site?"

What 80's futuristic action movie is all of this from?

We (unamed BBS collective kids in US) back in the 1980s developed a simple IR seeking short range rocket from Radio Shack and Heathkit stuff. Nothing nefarious indended, just Hmm how can we solve this problem that nations are. OG hacking intent frankly.

Instead of a payload detonating it popped a chute, as was the fashion of the day.

What is SAM?

SAM is surface-to-air missile.

Thanks kind stranger. And the people who downvoted me for asking, eat my short.

IR countermeasture flares extra per (1) incident.

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