ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Commercial, Military

Q&A: Capt. Joe Burns: Missile Protectiion: Airline Perspective

By David Jensen | November 1, 2005
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With every new terrorist incident, the drive to adapt military laser jammers to passenger jets accelerates [October 2005, page 38]. A program, managed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is producing prototype systems, and year-long, in-service flight tests are expected to follow. The issues surrounding the technology to protect the flying public from shoulder-launched missiles, however, are complex. To probe further, Avionics Magazine sought an airline perspective. We asked Capt. Joe Burns, United Airlines’ director of flight standards and technology, questions–from costs and technologies to fundamentals. United led a team that proposed an expendables-based solution for Phase 2 of DHS’ Counter MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems) program. We started with questions about that experience.

Avionics: Why was United’s proposal rejected?

Burns: The official explanation is that the United team’s proposed CAPS [Commercial Airliner Protection System] solution design was not considered to be sufficiently mature, compared to the two laser-based solutions proposed by defense suppliers. All three teams’ Phase 2 systems had passed their DHS preliminary design review at the end of Phase 1 less than a month prior to Phase 2 selection. Subsequent program news suggests that there have also been some maturity problems with the selected solutions, underscoring the fact that this is a difficult undertaking, where the traditional military approach to design and implementation is not well suited to the commercial end user needs.

Avionics: Do you think the expendable approach is better than laser jammers?

Burns: United’s concerns have always centered around three core issues: total cost, rapid deployment options in the event of urgent need, and compatibility with a wide range of aircraft sizes and types.

In our view the two laser solutions are still projected to cost substantially more to acquire, own and operate than an expendable solution. If large numbers of systems are needed in response to an urgent need, expendables equipment is already in large-scale production today, whereas current laser systems have only reached limited production. In fact, our understanding is that some elements of the proposed DHS laser systems may not yet be in production. Finally, the military demand for laser systems is very high, and it’s unclear where a civil aviation need would fall in a limited production prioritization.

With regard to compatibility with various aircraft sizes, expendables solutions are flying today on military aircraft–from large transports to single-seat fighters to helicopters–and would be applicable from commercial transports down to regional and corporate aircraft. By comparison, one of the laser systems requires attachment of a ventral pod comparable in size to the engine nacelle of many corporate and regional aircraft, and costing a significant percentage of the aircraft’s total value. Even on a Boeing 737-sized aircraft, the weight, size, drag and cost of such a laser solution is difficult to visualize as commercially viable.

Avionics: Do you anticipate a mandate?

Burns: There is a wide range of terrorist and other threats that are constantly being monitored and evaluated by both government and industry leaders, and MANPADS is one of those that deserves–and gets–focused attention in that activity. DHS reiterated recently to the airline industry that there is no specific, credible evidence of a MANPADS threat to commercial aircraft in the U.S. today. In that context we view the DHS Counter MANPADS program as a well justified preparedness effort in a time of evolving threats and intelligence, but not the subject of a probable near-term mandate. However, as with other threats that we, DHS, FAA, DoD [Department of Defense], and the Congress are monitoring closely, new information may of course lead to new perspectives.

Avionics: Should protective systems be required? Can passenger jets survive a missile attack?

Burns: There’s no simple answer to these questions. There are lots of variables, including aircraft type and missile type, attack geometry, impact point and other factors. The question of required protection comes back to the threat, as in the preceding question.

As for survivability, clearly airliners such as the DHL A300 have survived an attack in specific conditions, and with outstanding flight crew performance. To improve those options, United also participates in the DoD-led LASI, or Large Aircraft Survivability Initiative, and we’re working with DHS and NASA on a program called Throttle Only Control [TOC]. A MANPADS attack may have proportionally greater consequences on a smaller airframe, which goes back to our concern about pursuing countermeasures that are specifically applicable to smaller aircraft.

Avionics: How serious is the threat?

Burns: The threat should be taken seriously, and both the airlines and the U.S. government are clearly doing that. In terms of its likelihood in various parts of the world, obviously DHS and other intelligence agencies are the best sources of information. DHS has told us that there is no specific credible evidence of a MANPADS threat in the U.S. at this time.

Many types of threat mitigations are being pursued, from recovery of weapons to extensive airport analysis by TSA [Transportation Security Administration], to the DHS and other countermeasures developments, to the LASI and TOC programs for survivability. We see a combination of efforts as the only way to approach the problem.

Avionics: Is undue emphasis being placed on air transport security, given the vulnerability of other modes of transportation?

Burns: Recent events have underscored that aviation is not the only target, and we see the government, at various levels, looking at a broad range of potential threats and targets, including but not limited to commercial aviation, which is the right approach. Where we become concerned is with proposals for sweeping and costly mandates. We sometimes see more of a tendency to take that approach with aviation than with other types of targets. Terrorism is a potential threat to the U.S. and its security as a nation, not to any specific industry or segment of the economy, and mitigation, mandates and their funding need to be approached from that standpoint.

Avionics: How much financial support should come from federal sources?

Burns: The threat of a MANPADS attack against commercial airliners is a national security issue rather than an industry safety or airworthiness question. Such an attack would be intended to damage the U.S. as a whole, not the airlines specifically, and would be conducted using military equipment obtained, positioned and used in violation of a wide range of federal statutes overseen by many different agencies. To place the majority of the financial burden for protection against this national security threat on a single, financially strained industry would have the result of further crippling a vital driver of the national economy, arguably giving some measure of success to the would-be attackers without [their] even mounting an attack. To achieve effective, comprehensive protection, federal funding is needed both for initial deployment and for the much greater cost of ongoing operation of such a maintenance-intensive, non-airworthiness system.

Avionics: Should equipage be optional?

Burns: The issues involved in developing and deploying an effective countermeasures system against military missiles are very complex, and in large part classified. The simple truth is that the flying public does not have access to the information needed to make an informed decision about such a classified military capability. In the current constrained environment air carriers would be hard pressed to consider any significant deployment at the current estimated cost of the DHS-developed systems in any case. Finally, neither the air carriers nor the nation would be well served by essentially using terrorism as a marketing tool.

Avionics: One potential supplier estimates that the cost of operating its counter MANPADS solution on a flight from New York to LA in a B767 would be about the cost of a bag of peanuts. Is that estimate realistic?

Burns: No. Again, there are many variables involved, and there is a tendency of some proponents to use simple answers to complicated questions to reduce the sticker shock that a comprehensive cost evaluation inevitably produces. Due to the developmental nature of the current DHS solutions, such cost estimates are also based on supplier projections of operating and support costs. We are not aware of any supplier who has offered to guarantee its projections and absorb any overages. Finally, it’s worth noting that several major U.S. airlines have now eliminated the "bag of peanuts" from their service due to financial pressures.

Avionics: If some of the commercial fleet has to be fitted this equipment, what should be the cutoff point?

Burns: Partial deployment decisions must be based on the threat assessment, and proposals vary widely depending on the threat scenario used. Everyone involved would like to have reliable intelligence on which to base those decisions. In advance of specific intelligence, preparation of a countermeasures system or systems that can be produced and deployed in large numbers quickly and is highly flexible and effective, at the lowest possible cost, gives us the greatest ability to respond as new information becomes available.

Avionics: What is your view of the mix-and-match approach to DIRCM [directed IR countermeasures] pods, where they are taken on and off, depending on the airplanes’ destinations?

Burns: This type of approach offers limited usefulness to passenger airlines, who typically route aircraft dynamically throughout their systems on a constantly changing basis to adapt to equipment and system variables. It would offer some advantages in the case of military call-up of specific CRAF [civil reserve air fleet] airframes for significant periods of time if provisions were preinstalled on all CRAF candidate aircraft. However, the majority of military lift capacity from civil sources is actually done on a charter basis rather than CRAF airframe call-up, and is often subject to the same dynamic allocation of airframes and routing before and after the charter as in normal operations.

Avionics: Should the government look at less expensive solutions, i.e., expendables?

Burns: Yes. Laser-based countermeasures systems are expensive to acquire, placing financial limits on deployment rates, and are even more expensive to operate. There are doubts about the large-scale availability of laser systems in the event of urgent need. The practicality of laser systems on narrowbody or smaller commercial aircraft is dubious. There are other solutions that definitely deserve more attention than they are currently getting.

Avionics: Should there be more emphasis on ground-based systems?

Burns: Ground-based MANPADS countermeasures offer both advantages and disadvantages to commercial carriers, depending partly on the threat scenario involved, and should be evaluated further. However, there are significant technical issues to be addressed, as well as operational questions about how these systems would interoperate with a crowded terminal airspace environment, guaranteeing effective nullification of threats without impairing other aircraft or operations. For near-term preparedness we see ground-based systems to be in the early stages of development, and look at them more as part of a longer-term solution.

Avionics: Some Phase 3 funding is expected to be set aside to look at alternatives. Do you plan to participate with former team member Avisys again, or with anyone else, for that phase?

Burns: We would like to see funding set aside for alternative solutions, either as part of Phase 3 or separately. No decisions have been made at this time about United’s participation in Phase 3, pending definitive budget allocations and program plans. We are proud of the work that the CAPS team did in Phase 1 and continue to work with various team members in this and other security areas. We would consider working with any or all of our CAPS team members on any future program that is important to United.

Avionics: United is acting as a consultant to DHS, correct? Could you elaborate?

Burns: We have maintained close contact with DHS since Phase 1 of the Counter MANPADS program and continue to offer assistance where it may be needed. One such area is Throttle Only Control, a joint DHS/NASA program for safe recovery of an impaired aircraft. United and DHS expect to complete a formal agreement for support of this important effort by early October. As the DHS Counter MANPADS SPO [system program office] expands its role to include other types of potential threats to commercial aircraft, other areas of potential collaboration may come up, as well.

Avionics: What are the key maintenance issues surrounding these devices?

Burns: Specific maintenance issues are a function of system design and would be best addressed by their suppliers. In general, the issues are the same as any aircraft system: MTBF [mean time between failure], MTTR [mean time to repair], specialized training and test equipment, spares cost/positioning/handling requirements, and so on. Our concern is with the answers to those questions. MTBFs, for example, appear to be much lower than for typical airline systems; calibration and test may be significantly more complex and expensive; and spares handling may involve problems of protecting classified software, hardware or entire systems. Export controls on significant military equipment present an enormous challenge not only to initial deployment, but also to maintenance. For example, maintenance of a countermeasures-equipped aircraft outside the U.S. may be difficult or impossible–including contract outsourcing of routine maintenance.

Avionics: Do you envision that airline maintainers will need a security clearance to protect this military-derived technology? Will the components have to be stored in a locked, special-access-required room?

Burns: Again, manufacturer-specific plans should be discussed with system suppliers. In general, we hope that suppliers will be able to package systems so that line maintenance personnel will not require security clearances for LRU [line replaceable unit] replacement and routine maintenance, such as cleaning of optics. We do expect that some equipment will have to be kept segregated, in secure storage when not in use, and access carefully controlled. Some support functions will require security clearances and specialized security measures. Export controls for spares outside the U.S. could be a major problem.

Avionics: Do you foresee the need for additional maintenance staff training?

Burns: Our understanding is that Phase 3 will include detailed analysis of this and related issues. Our expectation is that some system-specific training will be needed, partly in actual technical support and partly in handling and tracking secure systems or subsystems.

Avionics: Will you have to send more people to the flight line to check systems, take them off and put them on?

Burns: This depends heavily on system architecture and deployment strategy. To actually install or remove a laser pod, for example, we expect four or more personnel would be required. For diagnostics and LRU replacement, two or more personnel would be needed. For routine system checks, we hope that BIT [built-in test] capability will address most situations with minimal on-site personnel.

Avionics: From a maintenance point of view, would you prefer a pod or an LRU-based approach?

Burns: Each has advantages and disadvantages. The current DHS program includes one of each type of architecture, so we are looking to Phase 3 to produce better data about this aspect. From an operational standpoint, pod-based systems can create significant drag and are visually overt, and we are concerned about those issues. For a non-passenger carrier, they may be less significant. Hub-and-spoke freight carriers may also find other advantages in pod-based systems that are less applicable to passenger carriers.

Avionics: Where would you work on the systems?

Burns: We would expect different levels of maintenance at different points in the system. Outstations would probably be limited to replacement of selected LRUs, and hubs would have full LRU capability. There would probably be a single point for major maintenance, or that might be outsourced to a specialized supplier.

Avionics: How much work do you foresee being done at the avionics shop?

Burns: This again depends heavily on system architecture and on export and classified content control requirements. Any avionics shop doing LRU repair work can probably be expected to require a secure facility, security cleared technicians, and other specialized processes.

Avionics: Or will you have to send the devices to the OEM or military depot?

Burns: Outsourcing LRU repair to a specialized supplier may offer advantages over in-house development and maintenance of the clearances and processes needed.

Avionics: How many spare counter MANPADS devices would you need? And who would manage the inventory?

Burns: This depends heavily on system reliability and architecture, as well as the threat scenario. Inventory management for a CRAF-only system might be done by DoD, but any wider deployment would probably need to leave much of inventory control in the hands of the airline to be synchronized with other maintenance operations to be effective and cost-efficient.

Avionics: What would you want in a cockpit interface?

Burns: System on/off, readiness status to include some indications of failures, countermeasures engaged status (status notification, not warning), and ground notification sent status notification. We do not foresee a troubleshooting interface in the cockpit for pilot use, but a maintenance troubleshooting interface somewhere on the aircraft would help reduce support costs.

Avionics: How much special flight crew training do you anticipate?

Burns: Minimal specialized training should be required. Basic training on the operating principles and functionality of the CM [countermeasures] system, and the meaning of and responses to the cockpit status display. No special maneuvering required on CM activation or engagement. Crews should also be given an expectation of airspace system responses to ground notification.

Avionics: Will the cabin crew require special training?

Burns: No. If the system successfully counters an attack, cabin occupants would typically be unaware of the whole event. In the event of missile damage to the aircraft, existing emergency procedures and cabin/flight deck interactions would and should be used.

Avionics: Is drag still an issue?

Burns: Drag is always an issue. Both laser teams believe that their systems will meet the current DHS Phase 2 threshold of 1 percent added drag on a specific reference aircraft type. One percent still amounts to a significant operating cost, and we feel that further reductions are very important. Also, those are projected drag computations: flight testing is just now beginning to validate those and other computations. Finally, we are still concerned about compatibility with narrowbody aircraft, where the same total drag amounts to a much larger percent increase.

Avionics: How large a hurdle will the certification process be?

Burns: We understand that FAA has agreed to limit its certification to airworthiness issues only and leave effectiveness to DHS, which should help with certification. From an airworthiness-only perspective, we expect both DHS systems to complete their planned Phase 2 STCs [supplemental type certificates], as scheduled.

Avionics: Finally, are you working with other airlines, to make sure you all are "on top" of this MANPADS issue or that Congress or DHS doesn’t produce unreasonable requirements?

Burns: As a member of ATA [Air Transport Association], United participates in formulating industry-wide positions on a wide range of issues, including MANPADS. We support ATA’s efforts to keep the needs of the aircraft operator at the forefront of the countermeasures debate and to promote responsible and commercially viable policy for the industry and the economy it helps drive.

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