2007/09/19

Addendum: Feasibility of an intercept vs. captured passenger plane in Germany

edit 2015: This info is outdated, but still shows the general problem of peacetime air defence / QRA.

The debate about shooting down passenger planes is not only a serious threat to the basics of the Bundeswehr - it's also a political show with marginal relevance for real-world security.

This is a map of Germany into which I added the locations of our active nuclear power plants and our relevant Luftwaffe bases.
The black points (4) depict the position of Tornado wings (fighter-bomber and reconnaissance wings; no interceptor mission, suboptimal aircraft for the job). The larger red points (3) show the locations of our three fighter wings (first to be equipped with Typhoon, now mostly equipped with outdated F-4F Phantom II). The radioactive warning signs (12) show the locations of active nuclear power plants (AKW, Atomkraftwerk in German). The biggest skyscrapers of Germany (prestige targets) are in Frankfurt.

edit 2015: Image was finally re-found on an old harddrive and re-inserted here:


Examples for international airports are Frankfurt, Hamburg, Köln, Hannover, München, Nürnberg and in general most large cities.

An aircraft would need little more than a minute from Frankfurt airport to Frankfurt's skyscrapers. Hamburg airport to AKW Krümmel east of Hamburg is possible in about three minutes, same with Stuttgart and AKW Philippsburg and Frankfurt to AKW Biblis. Hannover airport to Grohnde AKW west of it and Nürnberg to AKW Grafenrheinfeld north are longer distances, but far enough away from all fighter bases.

Even if I assume perfect information with no delays and Mach 1.8 speed (with missiles and fuel tank) for fighters and Mach 0.8 speed for passenger plane, it's that easy to find airport/skyscraper and airport/AKW combinations that make an interception by QRA (Quick Reaction Alert) fighters impossible.
We'd need several permanent 24/365 fighter patrols or great coverage with ready surface-to-air missile batteries to intercept a captured plane reliably before it impacts on its target.

The reality is even worse;
- an air traffic controller needs minutes to recognize a terrorist act,
- his superior another minute to confirm that,
- more minutes are lost in communication with the Luftwaffe,
- another minute is lost till the fighter pilots are alarmed,
- up to five minutes are lost till the fighters take off,
- it takes up to ten minutes to intercept the passenger aircraft and come close enough for visual identification of type and airline markings,
- another minute is lost till the firing for effect (if the pilot doesn't hesitate) means loss of control of the aircraft and has changed the path of flight enough to save a target even if the aircraft was already close.
That's easily 15 to 25 minutes in reality till a kill (minimum).

This makes it obvious that the present debate is a show and not oriented at all at adding real security.

An important background information for this debate is that the secretary of defence's (Franz Josef Jung) party (CDU) is pro-nuclear power.
A true security against terrorist strikes against the most terrible targets, the AKWs, would be to shut those power plants down and evacuate the radioactive material or to build a bunker around them. Additionally, surface-to-air missiles were necessary to protect the capital Berlin and the skyscraper centre of Frankfurt against terrorist air strikes (the French sent SAM units to protect their nuclear power plants in 2001).

Old studies showed that the present AKW concrete shell can stop a low-flying military jet (low-level flying was trained a lot in the 80's over Germany), but a much heavier passenger plane is much more powerful.

We don't fortify the AKWs, and this fact exposes how serious this party and this minister really take the security; they prefer the prestige and competence gains (even if at cost of freedom against observation in case of the minister of the interior (Schäuble) who promotes one competence of dubious efficiency after another) over real protection.

It's too sad that so many people in Germany fall prey to strongman rhetoric and simple scaremongering in Germany! The "may we shoot down passenger planes or not" debate is bogus!

edit:
A German institute published a new report on AKW vulnerability. Some AKW seem to be well-protected while others (old ones) are not. They summed up older research and test results in this German study.

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