Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

January 18, 2006

Securing the European skies

Filed under: Aviation Security,International HLS — by Christian Beckner on January 18, 2006

The Washington Post has a story in Wednesday’s edition about aviation security in Europe, and whether the continent is vulnerable to a 9/11-style hijacking and/or commandeering of a commercial aircraft. The article describes how the continent’s fragmented air traffic control and air defense systems leave it potentially vulnerable to this type of attack:

The European Union exists in large part to harmonize policy among its members. But when it comes to dealing with a hijacked airliner, those countries cling to a patchwork of contradictory rules and regulations.

In Sweden, it is forbidden to shoot down a civilian plane under any circumstances. Germany recently passed a law that gives the defense minister the authority to open fire on a hijacked plane, but the measure is being challenged in court.

Four East European countries lack their own air forces and rely on neighbors to patrol their skies, making the chain of command still more complicated. Some other countries won’t divulge their policies, citing national security.

On a continent where many countries are so small that planes can pass through their airspace in minutes, aviation and security officials say the conflicting approaches make it almost impossible to prepare an adequate defense against hijackers bent on crashing a plane into a target.

The article mentions Eurocontrol as a key organization for coordination of air traffic control within Europe, similar to the FAA. Eurocontrol has a small military unit, but NATO has the lead role for air defense activities in Europe. But given NATO’s membership, its role isn’t really an ideal fit, in the same way that NORAD has lead responsibility for air defense activities in the United States and Canada. Ultimately, the European Union should develop stronger capabilities in this area, perhaps handed over from NATO, as it enhances its broader military and security role.

For more on this issue, see this document (PDF) from Eurocontrol and this BBC article from 2003 on Germany’s air defense policies.

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