A New Approach for a New Breed of Threat?

by Nina Brooks

The combination of quickly evolving technology and increasing globalisation has led to a new breed of threat to aviation. No longer are criminals and terrorists restricted to coming up with new ways to physically get weapons or explosives through an X-ray machine. Air transport now has to deal with growing threats from people and objects unseen; a new model of anonymity from issues such as cybersecurity and unmanned aircraft coupled with the emergence of non-metallic weapons. Let’s consider the challenges posed by these less conventional acts of interference, the regulatory landscape and some possible means of mitigation.

The new kind of threat poses a real dilemma in terms of management and regulation. Think about the ‘traditional’ list of acts of unlawful interference – threats to aircraft on the ground, the prevention of prohibited items getting on board and preventive measures against hijack in the air and then compare them with issues such as cybersecurity, unmanned aircraft or lasers. The latter are not excluded from aviation security regulation. But if you can’t see the perpetrator, and he may even be situated in another country or continent, how can you hope to manage the risk?

Globalisation is a fact of life. It affects a number of things from how we do business, to the origin of our goods and how we deal with people from all over the world on a daily basis. The internet has opened up vast opportunities for communication and business, but with it has come the ability for criminals and terrorists to tap into our networks and affect our business. For example, the organisation and distribution of cyber criminals mean that we have to take a new approach to managing threats to aviation, one that knows no geographical or territorial bounds. Reservation systems, websites and financial systems are attacked day after day, whilst technology continues to become more interconnected and much more easily accessible. Airport and airline systems are critical to operations, air navigation systems and communication are crucial to safety, but cybersecurity still remains low on the agenda of many. We cannot hope to combat cyberterrorism by using traditional means of regulation or threat mitigation, such as screening and access control. A new approach is required.

A different emerging threat, remote from the airport, aircraft and passenger, is unmanned aircraft. Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) are becoming cheaper, easier to use and more sophisticated. It is already widely acknowledged that RPAS may cause a safety hazard in commercial airspace, making much greater impact than the most damaging bird strike. But what about security implications? The possibility clearly does exist for RPAS to attack targets on the ground or interfere with other aircraft. Regulators can restrict airspace, and regulate the use of heavyweight models. However, it will be difficult to track a perpetrator who wishes to carry out an attack, especially when an unmanned aircraft might not be detected by radar (or may be ignored as noise), and could potentially be used over a long range with no interaction with the ground once launched.