By David Jensen
WASHINGTON, 7 Jan. 2010. Phase III of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS's) counter MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) program is complete. The department's Science & Technology Division has compiled the test data; a Congressional report is undergoing internal review, and, according a DHS official, it will be submitted to the Senate and House Appropriations Subcommittees on Homeland Security in the first quarter of 2010.
Now we sit and wait to hear the results, right?
Well, not exactly. Both developers of the airborne counter MANPADS systems for commercial application are moving on with the laser-based directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) technology they proposed to DHS. Considering the current htt economic state of the airline and air-cargo industries, exploring alternative applications for counter-MANPADS systems is understandable – even though both manufacturers have demonstrated that they more than met DHS's cost confines.
Northrop Grumman, which developed its Guardian for DHS, is now preparing to demonstrate the system on a U.S. Air Force Air National Guard KC-135 Stratotanker. Both Northrop Grumman and its competitor in the DHS program, BAE Systems, are participating in the U.S. Army's Common Infrared (IR) Countermeasures (CIRCM) program, which would have virtually all of the service's combat aircraft equipped to protect against MANPADS.
The two manufacturers seek only U.S. aircraft operators as potential customers. Under the U.S. government's current International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), neither counter MANPADS system can be exported.
BAE Systems' candidate for the DHS program, called JetEye, uses comparable technology to Northrop Grumman's. The main difference is that Northrop Grumman houses the sensor and point-and-track systems in a maneuverable pod, while BAE Systems distributed the system's components to different parts of the aircraft. Both configurations hold advantages and disadvantages.
The Guard's KC-135s
All counter MANPADS systems have been removed from the commercial aircraft used for flight evaluation in the DHS program. Although DHS's Science & Technology Division has retained some systems, most have been returned to the manufacturers.
Northrop Grumman is now preparing to install one of its systems on an Air National Guard (ANG) KC-135. The Air Force has sought a substitute for this 40+ year-old, Vietnam War-era derivative of the Boeing 707, but the service's tanker replacement program has been fraught with problems and delays – which is why the Air National Guard must contemplate the KC-135's continued use and protection against modern threats.
Having installed and STC'd Guardian on its MD-10 and MD-11 cargo aircraft, FedEx will work with Northrop Grumman to modify the KC-135 in preparation for the countermeasures system's installation, according to Jack Pledger, Northrop Grumman's director of IRCM business development. The modification and preparation for testing will take about three weeks, he adds, and then a ground crew, with only "quick training," will be able to install the about 500-pound pod on the tanker in 10 minutes.
"Hopefully, Guardian will be installed in the first part of 2010," Pledger says. Key will be determining if the countermeasures pod interferes with refueling operations. "Then, the Guard will put the aircraft into routine service."
"The Guardian evaluation is exploratory only to investigate the suitability of a podded system for KC-1325 IRCM," says Col. Paul Mancini, chief of the ANG's Operational Requirements Division. "The first phase of the test will look at Guardian only, but market research will be conducted to see if other capabilities exist that should be evaluated."
Pledger expects few, if any, problems during testing. "From our data, we see no visual or aerodynamic restrictions to aerial refueling. [The Guardian pod] doesn't interfere with the KC-135 [refueling] boom," he says. "But, understandably, the Guard wants to do their own testing."
So far, ANG has yet to select a Guard unit for the evaluation. An evaluation schedule will be determined during the planning process, Mancini says. "We hope to conduct the evaluation by the middle of CY2011," he adds.
As for acquisition plans, Mancini states, "if the evaluation results support pursuing a podded IRCM solution, and if funding becomes available, the ANG will work with AMC [Air Mobility Command] and AFMC [Air Force Materiel Command] on a production and fielding strategy that includes a fair and open competition to evaluate all possible candidates.
"The decision to pursue this type of solution for the KC-135 and the number of aircraft to equip, if any, will be addressed once the evaluation results are know," he adds. The ANG, along with the Air Force Reserve, operate roughly half of the Air Force's about 400 Stratotankers.
Protecting Army aircraft
The Army seeks to extend the counter MANPADS protection installed on its CH-47 Chinook to almost all of its more than 4,500 aircraft in operation. BAE Systems understandably feels it has an edge in this program; it already supplies the Army with one of the counter MANPADS subsystems, the AN/AAR-57, under the Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) program. This warning system has logged more than one million combat flight hours, cuing flares as the countermeaure to MANPADS. On the Chinook, in addition to flares, the AN/AAR-57 cues the AN/ALQ-212(V), or Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures (ATIRCM) system, which is a directional laser jammer.
The loss of a Chinook to a missile fired by Iraqi insurgents in November 2003 pressed the Secretary of the Army to initiate development of aircraft protection against missiles. Four years later, counter MANPADS became more urgent after Taliban militants first fired a heat-seeking missile at a Western aircraft over Afghanistan.
Now, the Army wants to acquire laser directional jammers for its other helicopters, under the CIRM program. "The Army is looking for a smaller system for its smaller [medium to light] helicopters," says Burt Keirstead, BAE's director of Navy programs and spokesman for the company's counter MANPADS development.
Applying the jamming-to-signal (J/S) ratio, the jam head can be much smaller on a light helicopter than on a larger aircraft. For protection against MANPADS, the J/S ratio must be such that the deceptive jamming signal is greater than the IR signal generated by the aircraft being protected. Therefore, a smaller aircraft requires a smaller jamming signal to still maintain a sufficient J/S ratio.
Northrop Grumman, too, is competing in the Army program and has teamed with SELEX Galileo. Their candidate combines Northrop Grumman's Viper IR laser, processor, and missile warning system with SELEX Galileo's Eclipse pointer/tracker to beget a lightweight 5th generation DIRCM system. Open architecture in this new system assures that it will integrate with existing systems, such as the CMWS and flare dispensers. A successful live-fire demonstration of the system was conducted in 2008 at the Tonopah Missile Range in Nevada.
The Army issued a request for information on counter MANPADS technology from manufacturers in July. Keirstead says he expects the Army will decide on an antimissile system for its smaller helicopters in late summer 2010.
Answer to a real threat
Both manufacturers succeeded in significantly advancing counter MANPADS technology by implementing DIRCM. Guardian and JetEye were both developed to defeat lethal weapons such as the Army's FIM-92 Stinger and Russia's SA-7 Strela, shoulder-mounted missiles with IR-seekers and guidance systems.
These weapons have about a four-mile range creating a danger to aircraft, either commercial or military, during takeoff and landing, until they reach an altitude of at least 15,000 feet. Manufacturers in more than 20 countries have produced as many as 500,000 shoulder-fired missiles. Some 20,000 surplus MANPADS are believed to be in insecure arms depots worldwide.
The MANPADS threat is real. In November 2002, a year before DHS launched its counter MANPADS program, two missiles narrowly missed an Israeli passenger plane leaving Mombassa, Kenya. Shoulder-fired missiles have attacked some 40 civilian aircraft over the past 30 years, and they've cost at least 400 lives. Civilian aircraft are easy targets, according to Herman Radiess, DHS's Counter MANPADS program manager, because they are slow, predictable and create large IR signatures.
Northrop Grumman's Guardian is based on its AN/AAQ-24 (V) Nemesis installed on U.S. and United Kingdom military aircraft, including the C-17 Globemaster, CV-22 tiltrotor and the U.S. Marine Corps' CH-53, 50 types of aircraft total. BAE's JetEye evolved from the CMWS/ATIRCM program.
DIRCM technology comprises three primary components: an ultraviolet (UV) missile-warning sensor system, which "sees" the missile motor's UV signature, a pointer/tracker and a multiband laser. Cued by multiple sensors with wide fields of view (FoVs) to detect threats from all directions, the pointer/tracker, with a narrow FoV, pinpoints the attacking missile and – through a borescoped, optical telescope – guides a laser beam to the missile's sensor/guidance system. The laser blinds or confuses the missile, a process called "jamming."
With its closed-loop tracking, the pointer/tracker steers itself to keep the oncoming weapon in its FoV. A multiband laser (with a segmented waveform) is employed to assure it can effectively jam multiple (at least 35) missile types.
The counter MANPADS components accomplish their protective task autonomously within two to three seconds. During that brief time, separate algorithms process both the sensor input and the pointer/tracker input to doubly assure that a missile has been fired and, indeed, is a threat to the aircraft.
Only after the threat is averted is the flight crew alerted; the few seconds would not allow time to alert the crew sooner. "If fact, you don't want the crew to do some violent maneuver, knowing there's an oncoming missile," Pledger says. "It could affect the countermeasure."
Laser technology became key to DIRCM's plausibility as a counter MANPADS system for cost-sensitive airlines and encouraging to military branches that seek an efficient way to better protect their fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. Some earlier systems emitted jamming signals using arc lamps, which require more maintenance and more electrical power than lasers while delivering a less favorable jamming-to-signal ratio. The Guardian, for instance, requires no more electrical power than needed for a hair dryer. The counter MANPADS systems with arc lamps call for a 300-hour maintenance schedule (largely to swap out lamps), which is acceptable to the military whose aircraft are more likely to be in harm's way, but cost and time prohibitive to the commercial carriers.
Recognizing the airlines' operational model and cost constraints, DHS issued tough objectives for counter MANPADS development. But the agency's report to Congress will show that the two manufacturers more than achieved them. Consider the following:
• DHS requires that the counter MANPADS system must demonstrate at least 3,000 hours mean time between failures (MTBF). Pledger says test flying for DHS did not reach the 3,000-hour mark, but Northrop Grumman's systems on the Marines' CH-53 helicopters have posted 14,000 maintenance-free hours. "That's in battlefield conditions in Afghanistan and in a helicopter environment," he emphasizes. Keirstead added that BAE Systems "demonstrated that [the goal] is possible," and that 1,200 maintenance-free hours were logged on JetEye during the DHS demonstration.
• DHS also requires that, based on a fleet of 1,000 aircraft, the counter MANPADS system's operations and support costs must not exceed $350 per flight hour. "Our system is closer to $200 per flight hour," Keirstead says. Taking a different approach, Pledger says, "We showed DHS that during [an aircraft's] 20-year life cycle – from purchase to modification and installation and including maintenance and training until the system is disposed – the total cost would be less than $1 per passenger ticket."
• Based on its installation on 1,000 aircraft, the counter MANPADS system cost less than $1 million. "We can get to less than a million dollars with the purchase of just 200 aircraft," Pledger claims. Keirstead says that, with 1,000 aircraft fitted, JetEye's price tag would be about $600,000 to $700,000.
Does counter MANPADS on commercial aircraft have a future?
Keirstead suggests systems could be provided in a dual-kit form. An A kit would include wiring and other prerequisite equipment needed to accommodate a B kit, which would comprise the actual missile warning and countermeasures systems.
"One scenario is that the government buy an inventory of A kits for, say, aircraft flying overseas," Keirstead proposes. "If there is a specter of a threat at some destination, then the B kit could be installed on aircraft going there."
Other scenarios no doubt exist. For now, however, the future of counter MANPADS in commercial applications are in the hands of the U.S. Congress.