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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Industry Competition Under Way for Helicopter Missile-Defense System
Industry Competition Under Way for Helicopter Missile-Defense System
The Army plans to acquire a new laser system designed to protect military helicopters from shoulder-fired missiles. Despite a funding crunch that will affect many Army procurement programs, the service is expected to fund this project as heat-seeking missiles become a growing concern for deployed forces.

The program has attracted significant industry attention, and heavyweight contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon Co. are expected to compete.

The common infrared countermeasure (CIRCM) program highlights a glaring hole in the military services’ ability to protect helicopters and other low-flying aircraft, said industry officials. Existing technologies can jam sophisticated infrared guidance systems, but they are still ineffective against small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).

“That’s a tough problem that right now is too hard to solve,” Mike Booen, Raytheon’s vice president of advanced security and directed energy systems told National Defense Oct. 10 at the Association of the United States Army’s annual exposition in Washington, D.C.

“We can see small-arms fire, we can see RPGs,” said Jeffrey Q. Palombo, Northrop Grumman’s senior vice president and general manager of electronic systems for the company’s land and self-protection systems division.

But stopping these threats is another story.

“That’s very difficult,” Palombo explained. “It has to be a kinetic kill . . . If you’re going to go out and try to hit something, you better make damn sure that’s what you’re aiming at.”

The products being pitched for the CIRCM program are not “kill” lasers. They are low-wattage lasers based on semiconductors like those found in DVD and CD players. They are combined with precise pointing machines to jam missiles that use guidance systems to home in on engines and other aircraft hot spots.

The CIRCM program has been advertised as a multi-billion dollar opportunity in an environment of fiscal uncertainty. The Army could potentially buy thousands of systems that can be used on helicopters, tilt-rotor and fixed-wing aircraft.

Most rotary wing platforms are not protected by jammers, Palombo said. They are more likely to use missile warning systems and flares that also can fool heat-seeking missiles and throw them off target.

“But when you have a laser on a helicopter, you don’t run out of laser,” Palombo said. “You do run out of flares.”

Infrared countermeasures are available, but they tend to be bulky, officials said. There is a growing need for lighter systems for smaller helicopters such as Blackhawks, Apaches and Cobras, Palombo said. The Army wants its CIRCM system to weigh less than 85 pounds. Northrop Grumman’s offering meets that requirement. So does Raytheon’s.

Though the Army has no official requirement for flying the systems on unmanned aircraft, Booen said that Raytheon’s version is light enough to be used in Predator and Reaper UAVs. Commanders depend on the round-the-clock intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance provided by drones, which often must fly at lower altitudes bringing them into harm’s way, he said.

Raytheon has been developing a family of directed infrared countermeasure systems that can protect cargo aircraft and combat helicopters, and “unmanned is the next logical step,” Booen said.

The Army is expected to choose two companies soon to move on to the technology development phase of the program.

Also vying to a spot in this next phase are ITT Electronic Systems, whose product recently was tested on Blackhawk helicopters, and BAE Systems, which helped the Army rush to the battlefield a predecessor to CIRCM. Officials have credited BAE’s advanced threat infrared countermeasure (ATIRCM) system with thwarting a missile attack on a Chinook helicopter in 2009.

BAE’s new offering is called Boldstroke. It is a lighter variation of its previous product that can save the Army $1 billion in life-cycle costs, officials said.
BAE also has been investigating ways to counter small arms fire and RPGs. Even when these threats have failed to bring down helicopters, they have caused enough damage to render them useless, experts say.

And while CIRCM will help U.S. helicopters avoid infrared-seeking missiles, there is still no adequate defense against these “dumb” weapons.

There are efforts to improve technology to alert pilots to gunfire or RPGs , but no one has yet figured out how to divert a bullet in mid-air, Booen said.

Comments

Re: Industry Competition Under Way for Helicopter Missile-Defense System

In regards DIRCM what is not said here is that it is ineffective, to worse, against IIR. IIR is current in air to air and the larger surface to air arena and certain to take over as is simpler, more cost effective and robust for MANPADS as well. It seems a very poor cost benefit option to install current DIRCM on all identified carriers given its limited capability and probable inability given classical jamming operational function to be upgraded or modified to deal with the near future dominance of IIR.  
Bob at 10/11/2011 7:53 PM

Re: UPDATED: Industry Competition Under Way for Helicopter Missile-Defense System

Agreed on the IIR issue. What about the concurrent threat issue? With the conventional DIRCM jamming approach taking multiple seconds to engage a missile, a second missile fired within a couple of seconds of the first will almost certainly not be thwarted. Multiple  lasers or even switched seem impractical at best. CIRCM proposals are all non-"kill" when killing the sensors is the most effective way of handling IIR and having the time window available to address multiple threats.  Why is the focus still on jamming?
Mike at 10/13/2011 11:49 AM

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