Smaller is Better
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Last week, surface-to-air missiles were fired at an Israeli jet airliner in Kenya. The attack failed; the missiles did not hit the planes. But the attempt to bring down airplanes with such shoulder-held weapons demonstrates a threat to all air travel. These missiles use infrared tracking to steer them to the heat radiating from the airplane.
Now that air travel has been made more secure within an airplane, the terrorists can switch tactics and try to destroy airplanes from the outside. A shoulder-fired missile can be bought for a few thousands dollars. The technology, such as particles and lasers, to protect a jetliner from such missiles is extremely costly, and so far mainly confined to the military. Without this technology, airliners are defenseless. Israeli civilian aircraft may already be using it, but no others are.
It is also costly to guard airports against attack. For example, the ocean near an airport could be patrolled by naval ships. Land routes would have to be under surveillance up to 15 kilometers away from the airport. To do this at all airports would incur an astronomical cost, and who would pay for it?
The alternative would be to stop using large aircraft and only use small jets for passenger travel. Small aircraft would be less likely to be hit, and when attacked, the loss of lives would be much smaller. It would be more expensive to fly many small jets rather than fewer big ones, but if the threat of missile attacks makes air travel dangerous, the cost would already have been imposed, and the only question then is how to bear the cost. It seems to me that smaller aircraft would be less costly than an attempt to defend large aircraft from attacks.
Similarly, the Israelis should stop using large busses. Having been attacked many times by suicide bombers, large busses are just too risky in Israel. They should switch their public transit to small vans. They are more costly than busses, but given the risk and the cost of the loss of life, small busses seem to be the optimal choice.
Terrorism is going to be with us for a very long time. No place is safe; there have been attacks in Indonesia, Kenya, Tunisia, Russia, and many places in Europe. While some terrorists may have grievances, they don't need any real excuses. Those who infect the internet with computer viruses have no good reason for doing so; this is an attack for the thrill of inflicting cyber terror. There seems to be a biological law that any ecosystem will have predators and prey. Air travel is an ecosystem with prey: airplanes and their passengers. There will therefore be predators seeking to destroy them. We need to realize this and deal with it.
The world still seems to be in denial about terror. Many think it is a war that can be won. But if there is a universal sociological law that where there are prey, there will be predators, then this is not a war that can end in victory, but an eternal reality. There will be no utopia where everybody kisses and hugs. Let's get real. If the threat is permanent, then the solution must also be so. It seems to me that the least costly way to deal with the ever-present threat of missile attacks on airplanes is to have many small aircraft, so that the reward for attacking one is less, and the cost of avoiding an attack is also less.
In a world with an eternal threat from terrorists, smaller is better. We need to decentralize everything: government, travel, and buildings. Smaller and less visible targets will be less vulnerable. The economic cost-benefit analysis in a world with terror points to a future with highly decentralized governance, small airplanes and surface-transit vehicles, underground buildings, few large monuments, and more underground transit. No more above-ground passengers trains, big busses, and huge jets. From now on, everything has to be tiny or underground. That is tomorrow's reality.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2002 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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