A shoulder-fired missile threat last year forced an Israeli El Al flight from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to divert twice from its destination of Los Angeles and land in Hamilton, Ont. and then Montreal. The airline later installed an anti-missile system on some of its aircraft.

Not

only does this mechanism save lives and planes, it may save airlines that are “”flying on the brink of bankruptcy,”” says Philip Twardawa, acting chief scientist at Defence R&D Canada-Valcartier (DRDC) in Val-Bélair, Quebec. “”If you’re at an airport and you see the aircraft ahead of you knocked down out of the sky by a missile, chances are you’re going to cancel your ticket. This is the type of threat becoming prevalent. Given new threats, we’re adapting defensive technologies.””

The agency is winding down expensive projects from the 1980s revolving around the Cold War’s well-defined threat of sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missiles. Now it’s focusing on attacks from underground terrorist groups using cruder weapons like improvised explosive devices — cheap home-made bombs with a detonator activated by cell phone that Twardawa says are “”bothering a lot of our military in Afghanistan and Iraq.””

Weapon of choice

Scientists believe directed-energy weapons are one of the methods of choice to face off against this new threat. Laser weapons positioned on commercial aircraft that destroy the optics of heat-seeking missiles and introduce false guidance systems represent a use of directed energy devices outside of the military.

Other civilian uses can be seen in Tasers, police weapons connected to an electrical signal that shoot probes at people and that are marketed to women for self-defence.

Among this crop of weapons are also high-powered microwave devices, systems that “”fry”” on-board electronics of an incoming vehicle and force it to stop without harming civilians, explains Twardawa.

That said, “”nothing is guaranteed. What is non-lethal for one person might be lethal for another person.

“”For example, if somebody has a pacemaker in his heart, the high-powered microwave might do some damage,”” he says, adding aggressors may be held liable for using these weapons. (In fact, several Canadian deaths at the hands of police using Tasers have generated criticism about the supposedly non-lethal nature of the weapons.)

The government still has its fair share of fine-tuning to do, since these weapons are relatively new, Twardawa says. The Directional Infrared Countermeasures, a system protecting aircraft from heat-seeking missiles developed by Los Angeles-based Northrop Grumman Corp., is being used by both the UK and American militaries. On the market for five years, it’s considered by Twardawa to be the first generation.

At home, analysts are hard-pressed to name a local company working on directed-energy weapons for the military, blaming a dearth of information about the subject here. A DRDC spokesperson says it’s not working with contractors yet for its work in directed energy.

Not only is there still a mythology surrounding this science-fiction world of Star Trek-era phasers and ray guns, research on the weapons is highly sensitive and classified, says Rob Huebert, assistant director, Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary.

Huebert says directed-energy weapons are cloaked in secrecy because they have tremendous potential to change the notion of a deadly projectile, as high-powered beams reduce traditional problems associated with locking on to targets.

“”What I’ve seen seems to suggest that the biggest challenge that is faced in terms of directed-energy weapons is the power source. If it’s X-ray, if it’s particle, whatever you’re shooting through the directed energy, how do you build enough energy that it becomes meaningful?””

The U.S., not surprisingly, invests more capital in the research and production of directed-energy weapons. But Canada is keeping its ear to the ground on advances occurring south of the border, and knows the technology also exists in “”terrorist countries or countries of questionable political regimes,”” Twardawa explains.

Nick Papiccio, vice-president of development at Oerlikon Contraves Inc. in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., a solution provider for defence systems, doubts Canada will ever be involved in a multibillion-dollar industry of high-energy microwave or particle-beam weapons.

Canada is, however, exploring directed energy from a “”tactical-operational level”” to protect vehicles from bombs like rocket-propelled grenades, Papiccio says.

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