The current airport screening system keeps explosives off airplanes

In this entry, A. Zarkov explains the daunting difficulties terrorists face in assembling an anti-airliner explosive device that is both functional and non-detectable. Because of this, he argues, we do not need more sophisticated scanning technology in airports, but better security personnel.

Mr. Zarkov writes:

Our airport passenger screening system is designed to keep both weapons and explosives out of the passenger cabin, and it actually does work and will continue to work. A recent conversation I had with a person who knows a lot about explosives has given me some insight which I will share with VFR readers. But first we need to know a little about high explosives, called “HE” by those in this business.

A high explosive is a material that contains a lot of chemical energy that can be released very suddenly in a process called “detonation.” The suddenness is essential for the explosion to create damage. Liquid nitroglycerin provides a good example of HE. It detonates easily from a physical shock—too easily. Terrorists could try bringing nitroglycerin on a plane, but it all likelihood they would blow themselves up before they boarded. To be useful nitroglycerin must be stabilized and that’s how Alfred Nobel made his fortune; he mixed nitroglycerin with diatomaceous earth to form a stable paste we call dynamite. To cause the dynamite to detonate, one uses a blasting cap, which is itself made of HE material. The blasting cap injects enough energy into the dynamite to cause it to detonate. Here the dynamite is the secondary, while the blasting cap is the primary. Blasting caps are themselves dangerous because they must be sensitive enough to detonate using heat, flame or physical shock. If you look at the various types of blasting caps here, you will see they share a common ingredient: metal. Here’s the problem a would-be airplane bomber faces; he must choose both a stable secondary and a primary without metal because he has to go through a sensitive metal detector at airport security. My expert tells me that making a primary without any metal is difficult to impossible. Evidently Mutallab was using PETN as the secondary and Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP) as some form of primary. TATP is known to be extremely sensitive and generally not suitable for a secondary. This source says Mutallab was using a “blend” of PETN and TATP. It looks as though Mutallab was using something (from the syringe?) to create an exothermic (heat producing) chemical reaction to ignite the TATP which would in turn detonate the PETN. Not surprisingly it failed and all he got was some heat and fire which was easily extinguished. It’s also doubtful that there was enough PETN to blow a big enough hole in the airplane to cause explosive decompression in the cabin. Let’s remember that be to effective explosive charges need to shaped so they focus their energy in one direction. It seems unlikely that an omnidirectional explosion from 80 grams of PETN would have blown a big hole (or any hole) in the side of the aircraft, but we don’t know this for sure without doing experiments.

We see that the current airport security system if operated properly, presents a daunting challenge to a terrorist who tries to bring a functioning explosive device onto a passenger airplane. In my opinion we should put money into better personnel instead of advanced screening devices such as backscatter X-Ray and millimeter wave scanners. If the terrorists can conceal bombs in their body cavities, then they would defeat everything including the metal detector However, the Nesch company claims they have a technology that can detect explosive devices inside or outside the human body. Nevertheless there are troubling stories about TSA personnel having failed to find guns, knifes and other contraband in carry-on luggage. What good is all this fancy and expensive technology if we have underpaid, unmotivated and low IQ personnel operating the security system?

If I were in charge of the airport security I would privatize the whole system. I would then continuously red team it with another company. Every time the red team company defeated the airport security, they would earn a large bonus. The company operating system would then suffer a monetary penalty. The screeners would never know when they are being tested and you can be sure their management would demand and get performance.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 10, 2010 04:10 PM | Send

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