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Monday, May 1, 2006

Q&A: James Tuttle: Counter-MANPADS Moves Forward

Charlotte Adams

The threat from shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles is real: thirty-eight attacks have been attributed to these man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS, over the past several decades. In 2002 terrorists fired two missiles at an Israeli-registered passenger aircraft, but missed. Two years later a DHL cargo airplane was nearly downed while departing Baghdad International Airport. In response, the U.S. government launched its Counter-MANPADS program, which was set to award contracts for the third and final, "operational assessment," phase as this issue went to press. In Phase 3, two military-derived, infrared (IR) jamming systems are to be flown extensively on cargo airplanes in commercial service to test their reliability, affordability and suitability in a realistic environment. We talked about the program's progress, challenges and future goals with James Tuttle, program executive for aircraft protection programs, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Avionics: The Counter-MANPADS program is now poised to enter Phase 3. Can you discuss the funding of the program?

Tuttle: We are in negotiation with BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman [the two lead contractors] right now for Phase 3. We anticipate to have them both under contract by the end of April 2006. The funding was $60 million in FY04, $61 million in FY05 and $109 million in FY06. FY07 funding, still being worked on the Hill, is $4.9 million.

Avionics: What's planned for Phase 3?

Tuttle: There are two parts. In the first part, we'll be doing any design changes that are necessary. For example, there are components they need to change out. So we'll be doing design changes, incorporating them and installing the systems.

The second part will be collecting operational data. Once this begins, the airlines will be responsible for all of the maintenance and normal operational requirements of the aircraft and systems. We are targeting 10,000 flight hours total--divided among the airplanes that are flown in Phase 3. We'll collect data day in and day out. And we'll interview the pilots and maintenance crews.

Avionics: You plan to keep both contractors in Phase 3?

Tuttle: Our plan is to keep competition. If Congress mandates this, you don't want one company to corner the market. I've had multiple airlines tell me, "If you do anything, please keep competition." In fact, some of the airlines [saying this] were subcontractors to the primes. Surge is the other problem. Because of the time it will take to set up manufacturing facilities, having two companies able to begin producing immediately, should the need arise, will allow more aircraft to be equipped faster.

Avionics: How many aircraft will fly in the Phase 3 operational assessment?

Tuttle: We thought about a higher number of aircraft but ended up with a minimum of a half-dozen aircraft between the two contractors [certified and tested in Phase 3]. Every program struggles with budget issues. We decided this was enough.

Avionics: What tests are you planning to conduct in Phase 3?

Tuttle: Basically, the first part is an operational test: fly your routes and don't change anything. As the airplanes fly the routine routes, they will collect data and find out what kind of false alarms they have. Part of Phase 3 is to refine the algorithms to drive the number of false alarms down. One false alarm in 1 million flight hours--that's our goal.

The second part is "live fire" testing. A lot of people get nervous about the term, "live fire," so we've been calling it "advanced testing." We will go back to White Sands missile range in New Mexico. They build an infrared signature of the aircraft for each engine on a cable car strung between two mountains. Heat sources, like electric coils on a stove, are placed at the same spatial distribution as the engines on the aircraft. They shoot real missiles at it, after taking out the warheads and putting telemetry packages in so they can track the missiles. That's about the most realistic test you can do.

Avionics: When will the period of operational testing start?

Tuttle: In calendar 2007.

Avionics: That late?

Tuttle: Well, it takes nine months to a year for long-lead items. So if you ordered one today, you wouldn't get all the hardware until a year from now.

Avionics: Back to Phase 2--what was accomplished there?

Tuttle: A requirement of Phase 2 was to install these systems on widebody aircraft, test their functionality and also obtain FAA certification through a supplemental type certificate [STC]. The contractors can't go into the operational assessment without it. To get an STC, they have to take an aircraft out of revenue service and test the modified aircraft under an "experimental" certificate. The aircraft cannot transport airline passengers until the modification is approved and the STC is issued.

Avionics: What's the status of the STCs?

Tuttle: I expect them in the near future. The contractors are finalizing their data packages to submit to the FAA. They have completed a number of flight tests with the equipment, to include dive tests at maximum speeds. The STC also requires data such as environmental tests, which, for example, include humidity tests, temperature variation tests and even some random tests such as fungus growth. They test the equipment during and after it has been exposed to harsh environments to see if it keeps functioning.

Avionics: What aircraft are getting STCs?

Tuttle: Two different planes. BAE Systems is near certification with an American Airlines 767-200. And Northrop Grumman is near certification with a FedEx MD-11. Northrop wanted to do a passenger airplane, too, and signed up Northwest Airlines. For a number of reasons the Northwest 747 didn't work out, so Northrop has leased an Icelandic Air 747 to certify their system in the June time frame.

BAE plans to have its service evaluation on an Airborne Express 767. Northrop will use a FedEx MD-10 for in-service evaluation. They will take it off the MD-11 because that airplane flies internationally. Our focus has to be domestic because of technology protection considerations.

Avionics: What tests were performed during Phase 2?

Tuttle: Testing was done to evaluate how effective the proposed countermeasures would be against various threats. The threat list is classified, but we focused on shoulder-launched, infrared heat-seeking threats--not RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] or laser-guided weapons--because the heat-seeking missiles are more proliferated right now in the terrorist networks. We also tried during demonstrations to do evaluations of suitability in a commercial environment. We had operators and maintainers come in, and we simulated a broken LRU [line replaceable unit]. They would replace the LRU and we'd time them. They had had training before they did it. That's how it would be if they put it in the fleet.

Avionics: How many maintenance demos were there in Phase 2?

Tuttle: There were many demos in the last couple of months.

Avionics: Have you forwarded your Phase 2 report to Congress?

Tuttle: The report has been forwarded to OMB [Office of Management & Budget], who will vet it with other departments, such as State, Commerce and the DoD [Department of Defense]. The report focuses on three things: performance, suitability and cost. I would rather wait for the report to be delivered to Congress before discussing it.

Avionics: How did Phase 2 go?

Tuttle: Very well. By using the equipment and technology already developed and used by DoD, we were able to superaccelerate the development process, condensing what would have been a 10-year program into two years. Northrop Grumman, for example, developed a pod and fairings that attach to different shapes of airplanes. The system is designed to work across all widebodies and narrowbodies. BAE developed a distributed system where the missile warning system and turret [the structure housing the laser jammer] protrude from the fuselage while the electronics are in the cargo bay. This design approach also works across the fleet.

Avionics: Do high-tech military systems raise special issues?

Tuttle: Affordability is very important to this program. Maintenance costs are driven by the reliability of the system. Phase 3 was designed in part to increase reliability, thereby reducing maintenance costs. When you buy a brand-new car for $35,000, you better not have to put too much money into it for the next five years. But these countermeasures systems are advanced military technology. You are going to have to put money into it. DoD is installing it on their C-17s and other platforms, but it's very new technology. When you have the latest and greatest, you will have a maintenance penalty.

Avionics: Can you discuss the maintenance approach?

Tuttle: A major concept is that the airlines are not going to be repairing these LRUs. If this does get put on across the fleet, then airlines might come up with repairs of some of the parts. But they're never going to repair the missile warning, laser and tracker components. Those would be sent back to the prime contractor. The airlines would probably maintain it, do the BIT [built-in test], figure out which part is busted, and extract it.

The key to the program--and we're still struggling with it--is mean time between failures [MTBF]. We put a minimum requirement of 3,000 operational flight hours, but we wanted 4,500 flight hours. Commercial airlines generally expect closer to 10,000 hours between replacement. The legacy military systems were significantly lower than this. The 3,000-4,500-hour range is a compromise.

Avionics: How close are you to the 3,000-hour MTBF?

Tuttle: Right now, they are basically around 1,000 hours. MTBF is difficult to demonstrate, particularly in a test environment where the number of flight hours is more limited. The data collected during Phase 3 will provide a more accurate assessment of MTBF. That's probably one of the bigger poles in the tent right now.

Avionics: Would the systems be on the aircraft's minimum equipment list?

Tuttle: That's a policy that FAA would have to make. But right now FAA is basically saying an MEL of three to 10 days--probably more towards 10. Basically, that says you've got 10 days to fix it. That significantly decreases the maintenance cost. We came up with a maintenance philosophy, and the MEL was a big key to that. Most planes fly back into the country in 10 days. So you don't have to have spares all over the world. You can have them at a couple of sites, maybe, in the United States.

Avionics: How much protection is required for classified technology?

Tuttle: We don't yet have approval to fly this technology out of the country. Phase 3 is domestic routes only. I've been working with the State Department on this, trying to figure out what kind of security procedures we can put in place to mitigate the risk of compromising the technology. That will be part of Phase 3, too, and DoD will be very much a part of that. We'll develop some measures--some through technology, some through infrastructure. We're trying to develop a reasonable approach.

Avionics: You don't want to have to take it off when you fly internationally?

Tuttle: That kind of defeats the purpose. But right now, by law, the airlines would have to get an export license when the plane took off.

Avionics: What are the options for paying for it, if there should be a mandate?

Tuttle: That's a policy decision. Congress could mandate it. They could give grants to the airlines to buy and maintain it. They could put a tax on tickets. They could also limit the scope of it.

Avionics: What different aircraft would the technology be put on?

Tuttle: The program is just developing the technology and providing options. What aircraft would it be on if they ever mandate it? It's up to Congress and the administration to decide the mix. But it has to fit on passenger or cargo aircraft. There are a little under 600 U.S. passenger widebodies and about 3,000 U.S. narrowbodies and widebodies. If you include cargo, it's like 5,000.

Avionics: What about regional aircraft?

Tuttle: Our requirement was focused on narrowbody and widebody aircraft. In Phase 2, however, we did ask each contractor to do a preliminary assessment of the applicability of their designs to regional aircraft. They looked at issues such as electrical loads, structure and aerodynamic effects. Our assessment was that the equipment could potentially be integrated onto the aircraft as distributed, but not podded, systems. There are still a lot of unknowns regarding the applicability of directed infrared countermeasures [DIRCM] technology. Phase 3 is just looking at narrowbody and widebody aircraft.

Avionics: How did you come up with a baseline of 1,000 aircraft for evaluating procurement and installation costs?

Tuttle: We knew we had to have some high number because the more you order in quantity, the cost comes down. The spec of 1,000 airplanes is based on a mixture of widebodies and narrowbodies. It is a real number. We worked from [data such as] how many airlines are out there, how much is a reasonable cost, and when does production cost start stabilizing.

Avionics: How much does it cost to install these systems per aircraft?

Tuttle: Installation is cheap, probably about $200,000 per aircraft over 1,000 aircraft after the installation is designed.

Avionics: What about maintenance costs?

Tuttle: That's a sensitive area we're currently addressing.

Avionics: How would the system work with air traffic control?

Tuttle: If the system thinks it's under attack, it will send a squawk down to air traffic control. That alone is not enough information to allow air traffic control to know how to respond. We don't want to do that. Part of Phase 3 is to refine the technology.

Part of Phase 3 is to develop the emergency ground notification technology, so it doesn't just squawk; it sends a notification but sends other information with it, so you can verify the event. There are a number of ways this can be achieved. We will work these options with each of the contractors during Phase 3. For example, the information could go first to our DHS command center. One of the possible concepts is to downlink infrared imagery from the systems' IR trackers in order to verify whether there was an attack. We're working with each contractor to see what technology could be developed and demonstrated.

Avionics: Are you looking at ground-based missile protection systems?

Tuttle: That's a totally separate program. I'm running it but, in fact, the $10 million in funding is under another budget line. DHS will be releasing broad area announcements [BAAs] inviting proposals on countering the threat of MANPADS to commercial aircraft. Presumably, some of the proposals submitted will be for ground-based systems.

The airlines don't want the countermeasures technology on their airplanes. They don't want the responsibility of maintaining and operating it. They don't want the extra drag and weight. They've been asking the government to study alternatives. It's pretty understandable.

Avionics: Haven't you already evaluated such systems?

Tuttle: At the beginning of the program we opened it up to everybody. We have already assessed such systems. Basically, we found it was very immature technology. We're going to open it back up, but we're saying it's got to be more mature.

Avionics: Are these restricted to ground-based systems?

Tuttle: We're not even saying it has to be ground-based, although I think the majority of them will be ground-based.

Avionics: What is DoD's role?

Tuttle: We would never have had a Phase 2 if we didn't have DoD. They're the ones who have the missile simulators, test facilities and expertise. We funded them to do the work for us. They will have less of a role in Phase 3 because it's an operational assessment that needs to be focused on the commercial environment, not the military.

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