ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Airline Missile Defense Accelerates

By Charlotte Adams | October 1, 2005
Send Feedback

At A Glance

This article discusses:

  • Phase 2 of the federal Counter
    MANPADS program;
  • Rival onboard anti-missile packages;
  • Plans for Phase 3.

Several commercial aircraft types are poised to begin FAA safety of flight tests of onboard laser jammers, followed by evaluations of the technology against simulated missile threats. Early next year the results from Phase 2 of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program to develop and test prototypes will be sent to Congress, which already plans to fund an operational test period, known as Phase 3.

The House and Senate have requested $110 million for Phase 3 of the Counter MANPADS project in FY06. One House bill would require anti-missile gear on the U.S. passenger jet fleet. MANPADS–man-portable air defense systems–are shoulder-launched, heat-seeking missiles, 10,000 of which are unaccounted for.

Part of the Phase 3 money would fund the evaluation of alernatives, such as expendables and ground-based systems. DHS previously rejected a United Airlines/L-3 Avisys candidate, which uses flares and a Doppler radar/ultraviolet missile warner. The flares raised safety issues, and the radar raised spectrum coordination concerns.

Avisys’ commercial airliner protection system can provide a safe, low-cost alternative to laser systems, according to Jim Carey, the company’s vice president of business development. While additional certification testing would be required to meet civil aviation frequency allocation requirements, FAA has procedures to accomplish this, he says. The system’s infrared (IR) decoys use the same ignition cartridges certified for civil aviation fire extinguishing and life raft systems, he points out. And FAA has approved the use and dispensing of USAF IR decoys to alert and ward off civil aircraft entering controlled airspace over Washington, D.C., he adds.

If the program moves to the next stage, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman, the players in Phase 2, probably will continue their efforts to adapt directed IR countermeasures (DIRCM) systems. Phase 2 focuses on FAA certification and DHS performance evaluations. It also includes a maintenance demo. Phase 3, to include live fire testing, would resemble military low-rate initial production (LRIP) programs, which "wring out" systems before full-rate production, says Jack Pledger, Northrop’s director of IRCM business development. More aircraft and aircraft types would be involved. The 12-month effort would aim "to get enough operational hours to have a statistically significant sample of flight time," he says. Using aircraft in revenue service, Phase 3 would address technology protection and push cost and reliability goals. The Rand report on protecting commercial aviation, for example, projects military DIRCMs’ mean time between failure (MTBF) at 800 hours. DHS wants 3,000 hours.

Both companies would minimize operation and maintenance cost. BAE now packages control electronics, not in a pod, but as four or five primary line replaceable units (LRUs) housed in the cargo and electronics and equipment (EE) bays. This reduces weight and drag and doesn’t need heavy equipment, says Steve Dumont, BAE’s business development manager for counter MANPADS. Another issue was fitting the pod. "The forcing case was the MD-80, the airplane that’s closest to the ground," he says. "We put our components where they would logically go in a commercial airplane." Only the parts necessary to detect and track the missile and fire the laser are exposed. These protrude 9-to-10 inches [23-to-25 cm], compared with 2-to-2.5 feet [0.6-to-0.8 m] for the pod. The control units are installed in standard racks in the cargo hold. This reduced system weight by about 300 pounds (136-kg), Dumont says. BAE’s total system weight is about 400 pounds (181 kg).

Dumont says that replacing equipment on the flight line fits low cost carriers’ 30-minute model, including paper work. BAE’s approach requires just two maintainers–one to hold the equipment and the other to remove the bolts.

Pledger says Northrop Grumman’s pod is easy to handle, too. The opened, caster-mounted shipping container the system comes in is rolled under the pod. Two maintainers turn cranks–one at each end of the container–winching it up into position. Two other personnel get on ladders and put pins in. Then the cranks are turned the opposite way, letting the container down. Attachment cables are removed and the container is pushed away, a process that took a ground crew from Northrop’s partner, FedEx, 9.5 minutes. The pod, containing everything except cables and connectors, weighs 350 pounds (157 kg), Pledger says. Structural reinforcements bring system weight to 500 pounds (227 kg). The unit is about 7 feet (2 m) long and 1.5 feet (0.5 m) wide, and extends a maximum of 1.5 feet (0.5 m) down from the belly. Northrop has built three out of a planned five.

Northrop estimates its system can be operated for 3/1,000ths of a cent per available seat mile. On a New York to LA flight on a B767 (300 seats), that works out to about 70 cents per passenger, or the "cost of a bag of peanuts," he claims. He stresses the company’s experience–its military system is being installed on several hundred military aircraft.

In preflight the ground crew will check that the optics are clean, as Pledger pictures it. They may have to replace filters and desiccants. At power-up the unit does a self-test, and external lights on the side of the pod–repeated in the cockpit–indicate thealth status.

Northrop and BAE have completed their critical design reviews and are pressing on to flight test. BAE has built and tested its hardware at its facility in Nashua, N.H., and has shipped it to partner American Airlines’ heavy maintenance center at Alliance Field near Fort Worth, Texas. As of early September, the aircraft had been provisioned and the DIRCM components were being installed. BAE is using a B767-200. American Airlines designed and fabricated the provisions and will manage the BAE system installation, integration, flight test and certification.

Northrop plans to obtain supplemental type certificates on a FedEx MD-11 and a Northwest Airlines B747-200. FedEx will manage flight test and certification for both. Northrop planned to start flight tests of the MD-11 with an instrumented pod in mid-September.

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox