Counter MANPADS: Live-fire finale?

By Ed McKenna | July 1, 2007
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After four years of test and development, the two systems competing to protect commercial aircraft from man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) will get a chance to prove themselves against live fire this fall.

The Counter-MANPADS systems — Northrop Grumman’s Guardian and BAE Systems’ JetEye — will be placed on a cable stretched between two peaks at the White Sands missile test range in New Mexico, said Kerry Wilson, deputy administrator of the anti-missile program at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology branch. "We will fire MANPADS at them and gather data on their ability to counter (the) missiles," Wilson said.

Both contractors say they are confident of success, since the technologies at the heart of their systems have achieved a considerable track record in earlier live-fire tests and actual military operations.

"We are looking forward to getting out there to the live fire. You can look at it as kind of the capstone of the Counter-MANPADS program," said Steve duMont, business development director for BAE Systems’ commercial aircraft program.

Indeed, the live-fire tests may be a respite for a program that has had to battle for additional funding and fend off persistent questions about its cost and necessity. Even as the program enters the home stretch, DHS is actively exploring alternate concepts — a move that can hardly be seen as vote of confidence.

Since it was launched, the Counter-MANPADS program has garnered about $269 million in federal funding, including $40 million for FY 2007. DHS is using $35 million of that amount, "plussed up" by Congress after the Bush Administration allotted only $4.9 million, to expand the scope of the program’s third phase to include operational testing not only of cargo carriers but also passenger aircraft, said Wilson. The agency is working with the vendors to craft a plan for passenger service testing, he said.

JetEye and Guardian differ in the ways they are installed on aircraft, but are otherwise "very similar," duMont said. "They are both laser-based Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM)," that perform the same function in the same way.

BAE packages control and processing electronics as four or five line replaceable units housed in the cargo and electronics and equipment bays. JetEye includes a laser point-and-track "jam head," multi-band infrared laser, four missile warning sensors, an aircraft interface unit and a flight-deck control panel. Only the parts necessary to detect and track a missile and fire the laser are exposed.

Jack Pledger, director of the infrared countermeasures business development with Northrop Grumman, described the Guardian system, contained in a pod attached to the aircraft belly.

"We use a series of sensors to detect a missile by being sensitive to the products the rocket motor generates," Pledger said. Initially, an ultraviolet detector sees the UV produced by the motor and runs the information through a series of algorithms to ascertain whether it is a missile or background clutter, he said. If it is a missile, the detector signals a turret equipped with an infrared camera, directing it where to look. Mounted on gimbals, the infrared camera locks on to the threat and tracks it, keeping it centered in its field of view while assessing the threat in the infrared spectrum. If it confirms the object is a missile, it activates a multi-beam, infrared laser and disrupts the attack.

"It all happens in about two to three seconds and is completely autonomous," Pledger said.

In the first two phases of the program, the companies designed, built and gained FAA supplemental type certification (STC) for system installations. Northrop Grumman earned certificates to operate on MD-10 and -11 and Boeing 747-100, -200 and -300 aircraft; BAE gained an STC for the Boeing 767.

Northrop Grumman is partnered with Northwest Airlines but hadn’t confirmed a partner for the DHS Phase 3b program.

JetEye is deployed on a B767 flown by cargo carrier ABX Air. However, BAE is limiting involvement in cargo operations and focusing more on passenger service, duMont said. When it gets the go-ahead, BAE’s partner, American Airlines, is ready to begin flying JetEye on revenue aircraft.

Originally, the Counter-MANPADS program was slated for two phases. But DHS said early phases showed that system reliability was not "where it needed to be" for the commercial environment. "That was one of the major drivers to go to Phase 3," Wilson said. "Remember, these systems were derived from military systems with a mean time between failure (MTBF) of 300 to 400 hours. That is fine in the military, but not in the commercial environment."

In Phase 3, an operational test and evaluation phase, the systems must achieve a MTBF of 3,000 hours, get operations and support costs to $350 per flight and bring the system price down to $1 million per copy when produced in lots of 1,000.

The contractors say they are confident they can meet these requirements.

"There is a lot of misinformation out there about mean time between failures," Pledger said. "We have already got 1,200 hours on the system without a failure" in Phase 3 test flights on FedEx MD-10s. Northrop Grumman has built 12 Guardian pods and will fly nine of them in continuous service through the end of Phase 3 next March.

Company efforts to boost reliability and lower costs began before Phase 3. At the urging of American Airlines, for example, BAE scrapped plans "to put the system into a big canoe-like structure and bolt it to the underside of the aircraft," said duMont. Instead, the airline deployed all system elements within the airplane except those that needed to be on the outside to see and jam a missile.

The change reduced drag and consequently fuel burn and gave airline mechanics easier access to the aircraft interface unit — the first place they need to get to if they have issues with the system. JetEye also is designed to be repaired quickly. Each of the system "boxes (can be) swapped out within a 30-minute window," duMont said.

To boost system life, BAE also has designed the system to go into sleep mode when outside of the threat envelope.

Northrop Grumman worked with FedEx and Northwest Airlines to design its pod approach, Pledger said. "We took all the components we put on a military airplane, reconfigured them and put them into one little pod" that can be attached and removed in 10 minutes from the airplane belly. "The pod contribution to drag is so small it isn’t measurable," according to company tests.

The design allows "us to make a very minor modification to the airplane," Pledger said. Aircraft can be fitted with the system while undergoing routine heavy maintenance. Attachment points are placed on the aircraft bottom, a power line is run down the attachment point and a control line is threaded up the cockpit and attached to the IFF transponder and control indicator.

Even with all the refinements, the systems still must prove themselves in Phase 3 and now, it seems, take on a growing cadre of competitors.

Competing technologies

Last October, DHS launched its Emerging Counter-MANPADS Technologies Assessment (ECMTA) program, awarding $7.4 million in contracts to L-3 Communications’ AVISYS subsidiary, Northrop Grumman Space Technology and Raytheon.

"We are looking at technologies that have matured since the initiation of the DIRCMs program" to see if they are capable of working in the civilian environment, said Don Roberts, ECMTA manager at DHS.

The systems to be scrutinized are all non-DIRCM and include ground- and aircraft-based countermeasures, such as the second generation of the AVISYS’ Civil Aircraft Protection System (CAPS). Under the DHS contract, the company said it will perform frequency interoperability and allocation analyses of its CAPS2 pulse Doppler warning subsystem technology — the MWS-20 — produced by Thales Airborne Systems. The MWS-20 uses a battery of technologies and antennas to detect incoming missiles and alert the mission computer to trigger infrared countermeasures.

Raytheon will put its ground-based Vigilant Eagle Airport Protection System through the paces for DHS. The system uses a distributed missile detect-and-track network to fend off attacks at airports.

Vigilant Eagle can defeat MANPAD "missiles in seconds, without any alteration to or involvement by the aircraft using the airport... and can be rapidly deployed at a reasonable cost," said Mike Booen, vice president of Directed Energy Weapons at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Adding even more variety to the mix, DHS unveiled in January "Project Chloe," a plan to protect airports with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). "It is a high-risk yet high-impact (program) if it works," said Christopher Kelly, DHS associate director for strategic communications.

Initial funding for the program is coming from "our own internal S&T budget," said Kelly. "About 10 percent of our budget is designated to look at riskier potential solutions." The agency will use the U.S. Navy Global Hawk UAV to test the concept later this summer and has issued a broad agency announcement to solicit potential industry solutions.

On the merits, these new programs get mixed reviews at best. The area a UAV or ground-based system would have to watch could be immense.

"Most commercial transports will fly at relatively low altitudes during the last 15 to 20 miles of approach, and since the vector of their approach varies wildly depending on the weather, you find yourself needing to be able to monitor airspace in the thousands of cubic miles," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a defense research organization based in Arlington, Va. "When you are defending an aircraft in flight, you are providing a point defense and that significantly simplifies the challenge of coping with any attacker."

Even if they cover all that area, these systems still "are protecting the airplane for a fraction of the time it is vulnerable," said duMont. "Countermeasures that go with the airplane afford protection not only when it is landing in the U.S., but when it is landing and taking off overseas."

"Eventually, we will need an integrated response," said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (R-N.Y.). "In some cases UAVs might make sense; in others ground-based systems may be effective. But right now we have none of that."

Israel introduced legislation with Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.) requiring that DIRCMs be deployed on 20 civil reserve aircraft. The proposal addresses airline concerns about cost by getting the Department of Defense to pick up the tab of about $75 million a year, Israel said.

After evaluating industry proposals for Project Chloe, a contract award could come in late summer or early fall, said Wilson.

The surge in interest in different technologies does not signal a change in direction of the Counter-MANPADS effort, DHS officials said. "We have learned some things, (and) we’ve basically been directed to look at other alternatives to make sure we have all of our bases covered," said Wilson.

BAE and Northrop Grumman have taken the competing developments in stride.

"Northrop Grumman is participating in all those initiatives," said Pledger. "We have talked from the very beginning about a layered approach to security" that includes passenger screening and security around the airports.

"I think it is important for DHS to study all of the potential technology applications to solve this problem," duMont said.

Some observers are not as sanguine. "It has been a frustrating issue because any time we get close to a technical solution to the threat of MANPADS, DHS invents a new excuse or new project, such as Chloe," Israel said. "I don’t know if they are intentionally diversionary or stalling, but they have stalled progress."

"It has seemed to me that the DHS program in this field has basically been designed to kick the can down the road in the hopes that everybody else can go get a different job before there is an attack," said John Pike, director of

The airlines don’t want to pay for Counter-MANPADS "because stock holders won’t hear of it," he added.



A Real But Hard To Quantify Threat

Since the launch of the Counter-MANPADS program in 2003, the threat of shoulder-launched missiles has remained compelling but largely hypothetical for commercial aircraft.

The U.S. State Department estimates more than 1 million MANPADS missiles, first built in the 1960s, had been produced worldwide through 2005. The weapon itself is little more than a heat-seeking missile, launching mechanism and a battery that can be carried and fired by one person.

"The most highly proliferated system is early-generation Soviet designed SA series missiles," said Matthew Schroeder, manager of the arms sales monitoring project at the Federation of American Scientists. These appear to be the weapons used most frequently in attacks and still probably pose the biggest threat. However, newer models that are better at discriminating countermeasures "are much more highly proliferated than they were a decade ago," Schroeder said.

Decoys, flares and broadband jammers do "a good job" against earlier systems, said Jack Pledger, director of the infrared countermeasures business development with Northrop Grumman. Directed Infrared Countermeasures (DIRCM) technology was developed to address the latest threats.

The critical question is how many of these weapons are in terrorist hands? "There are 27 separate terrorist organizations with 700,000 MANPADS around the world," said U.S. Rep. Steve Israel (R-N.Y.).

The State Department’s position is more ambivalent: "Most of these systems are in national inventories or... they have been destroyed, but in many cases, these systems have not been accounted for," the agency says.

Whatever the number, the uncertainty in the wake of 9/11, coupled with a MANPADS attack on an Israeli airline Boeing 757 in Mombassa, Kenya, in November 2002, sparked action in Washington. Although it was unsuccessful, the attack proved to be "the defining moment in the Counter-MANPADS" effort, Schroeder said.

In December 2002, the Bush administration convened an interagency task force to look at the threat, and about a year later the Counter-MANPADS program began.

Meanwhile, the attacks continued. Most notably, a DHL Airbus A-300 was hit after takeoff from Baghdad International Airport in November 2003. An exact tally of these events remains illusive, however. The State Department estimates that since the 1970s, more than 40 civilian aircraft have been hit by MANPADS, causing about 25 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide.

"The MANPADS threat today is where the debate on suicide bombers was before 9/11," said Loren Thompson, chief operating officer at the Lexington Institute, a defense research organization based in Arlington, Va. "We knew that there had been a handful of attacks but didn’t have a clear grasp of how big the problem could be."

Counter-MANPADS critics see it differently. "To the best of our knowledge, there have only been four (attacks) on large-sized commercial aircraft... in the fleets of our (member) airlines," said John Meenan, executive vice president of the Air Transport Association (ATA). Most of the aircraft cited in the State Department report "were corporate-sized aircraft and helicopters that were operating in war zones. That is a totally different situation than we are dealing with here."

ATA has been the most visible opponent of Counter-MANPADS program. The organization suspects it is largely vendor-driven and has not garnered the kind of scrutiny required for a program that could cost "multibillions of dollars a year for 20 years," Meenan said. — Ed McKenna

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