The Gatwick Gaffe

Not since the Battle of Britain has that island nation faced such a threat from the air, though in this case the response has been less than Churchillian. Decidedly not their “finest hour.”

The shutdown of Gatwick Airport in London, reputedly the second-busiest in the country, when unauthorized drones invaded its airspace last week, wrought havoc way beyond the incident itself.

It inconvenienced an estimated 140,000 passengers, provoked calls for Scotland Yard to take over an inept local police investigation, exposed for the umpteenth time the insatiable sensation-greed of the British media, and threatened to make a laughingstock of the country in general.

Sussex police have so far been unable to apprehend the perpetrators. In their bumbling quest to solve the mystery of the unidentified flying objects, they arrested a couple, apparently without sufficient cause, then released them, but not before their names were publicized everywhere.

The couple, who identified themselves as Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk, complained on Monday that they felt “completely violated” by the arrest and defamations.

“Our home has been searched and our privacy and identity completely exposed,” said Gait. “Our names, photos and other personal information has been broadcast throughout the world.”

Among the worst was journalist and commentator Piers Morgan, who was forced to apologize for calling the pair “clowns” and suggesting they were “terrorists.”

The offended will likely want more than apologies. Legal experts have said they could get £75,000 to £125,000 or more in damages for the massive invasion of privacy.

For a brief time, the drone affair appeared to dissolve into outright farce as the police were quoted suggesting it was possible there was no drone there in the first place, and the whole thing might have been a case of mistaken identity.

The spokespersons were soon back on message, assuring the public that there were indeed drones out there and that the shutdown had been justified. But that only reminded people that they were still “clueless,” according to some headlines.

“What’s going on?” asked the Sun. “Are we completely incapable of protecting our airfields?”

The Daily Mail noted dourly that the incident has exposed “dispiriting levels of incompetence and lackluster leadership among those tasked with protecting the public.”

But once the tabloids have finished venting their indignation (in which they so obviously revel), the broader question to be asked — beyond “whodunit?” — is, what is to be done to prevent such airborne chaos in the future?

Demands for laws to regulate the flying of drones in Britain turned out to be, in the words of a spokesman for the Department for Transport, “a combination of nonsense and gross misrepresentation.”

“The drones at Gatwick have been flown illegally. The government changed the law this year to make it illegal to fly drones within 1,000 meters of an airport or above 400 feet. The law couldn’t be any more clear,” he said.

The failure was not regulatory but technological. The statement issued by British security minister Ben Wallace did nothing to inspire confidence. “The huge proliferation of such devices, coupled with the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions. However, I can say that we are able to now deploy detection systems throughout the UK to combat this threat.”

The vagueness about those systems bespoke a curious shyness about admitting that it was an Israeli-made technology that enabled the airport to reopen.

Reports that airport authorities “called the army in” mostly failed to say that the army (why not the RAF?) did not deploy tanks and armored personnel carriers. They deployed the Drone Dome system, purchased just a few months ago, which can rapidly detect and neutralize drones. That, it seems, was enough to shoo away the invaders.

But, as was evident, the Drone Dome had not been installed prior to the event at Gatwick. Indeed, the new technology has only now come to the attention of officials in charge of sensitive locations like airports.

But somebody got a wake-up call. The inventors of Drone Dome, Skylock, said on Tuesday it has seen a 40 percent spike in inquiries about its product since Gatwick.

It would be a mistake, of course, for Americans to giggle about British ineptitude.

“U.S. airports may be just as vulnerable as Gatwick,” according to Bloomberg. Existing counter-drone technology performed miserably in recent tests. They couldn’t reliably identify rogue drones, tracking radars didn’t work when the devices hovered in place, propagating false sightings, and the saturation of radio broadcasts around airports caused so much interference as to make detection exceedingly difficult.

Earlier this year, Congress gave authority to the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to use measures to take down drones in extreme cases. Still, U.S. authorities might respond in much the same way as their British counterparts if faced with a similar situation.

“The FAA does not endorse or advocate for the use of countermeasures in the airport environment, given the likely resulting impact on the safety and efficiency of the nation’s airspace,” according to John Dermody, FAA’s director of airport safety and standards.

John Halinski, a former TSA deputy administrator, told Bloomberg that the Gatwick trauma has sent shockwaves throughout the world of airport security.

“It is a major problem,” Halinski said. “I don’t think it’s being addressed properly.”

In other words, if action isn’t taken immediately to improve airport defenses, the U.S. will soon enough have its own Gatwick gaffe, and there is no guarantee that it will be handled any more effectively here than it was in Britain.