‘Smart’ Flares Being Designed To Defeat Heat-Seeking Missiles

By Sandra I. Erwin

Future military aircraft, such as the Air Force F/A-22 and the Joint Strike Fighter, will be equipped with “smart” decoy flares designed to defeat the most sophisticated heat-seeking missiles. Unlike traditional flares, which are dropped from aircraft like “hot bricks,” these new infrared countermeasure devices will be able to fly predetermined trajectories, alongside the aircraft.

Called “kinematic” flares, they are considered “the state of the art in pyrotechnic decoys,” said Mark Driver, director of advanced countermeasures technology at Kilgore Flares Co. The firm is a subcontractor to BAE Systems for the development and production of infrared decoys for the F/A-22 fighter and the JSF.

“Kinematic flares are the most sophisticated,” Driver said. “They are an order of magnitude more complex than the old-style flares.”

The availability of increasingly more advanced heat-seeking missiles is pushing the development of this technology. Traditional flares—burning pyrotechnics that are dropped from aircraft to fool incoming missiles—will not be effective against the latest missile infrared guidance technology, he said. “Modern threats are sophisticated enough that they can tell the difference between a falling brick and a moving aircraft.”

Meanwhile, the military services continue to upgrade their current aircraft with new types of airborne expendable devices that are not kinematic, but offer other improvements, such as an aircraft-like signature, making it easier for the decoy to confuse the incoming missile.

Kilgore currently is designing a new flare for the B-52 bomber, Driver said. The current decoys employed in the B-52 have been out of production for more than 25 years. The last manufacturer was the Longhorn Ammunition Plant, in Texas, which no longer exists.

One common technique to boost the performance of flares is to mix different types of decoys, like a cocktail, explained Driver. “When you have a mix of flares with different signatures, the effectiveness is enhanced.”

The materials used in flares constantly are evolving, to keep up with advances in infrared missiles threats, explained Carl Lohkamp, pyrotechnics development director at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Crane, Indiana. The center is the lead Navy laboratory and design house for pyrotechnics.

Several types of military aircraft are being equipped with new flares made of iron-derived lightweight alloys, developed at Crane. Unlike traditional pyrotechnic flares, the advanced decoys contain tiny porous metallic wafers that react with the oxygen in the air to produce heat in a temperature range similar to the temperature of the aircraft. The oxidation happens quickly and is hardly visible to the naked eye, Lohkamp said. “In the daytime, unless you have the right background, you’d never know that anything was ejected.”

A single cartridge (about 6 inches long and 1.4 inches in diameter) can hold more than a thousand wafers. Once they are ejected into the air stream, they react with the oxygen and produce heat.

These types of flares have potential application on commercial airplanes, because they would be less likely to ignite a fire than older pyrotechnic burning flares.

Crane developed these advanced material flares in partnership with Alloy Surfaces Co., based in Chester Township, Pennsylvania. The company now owns the patent and produces the flares.

“We are working with Alloy Surfaces to perfect the material. It is constantly being changed,” Lohkamp said.

The NSWC also developed a new flare for the C-17 Air Force transport airplane. The first large production contract for this flare was awarded to Armtec Corporation in Camden, Arkansas.

“We try to not be a production house, but only meet special needs,” said Lohkamp. He said NSWC Crane serves as an “evaluator” of technology to help companies improve their products and meet military requirements. The lab recently was recommended to be the lead test agency for the qualification of Joint Strike Fighter infrared countermeasures. “We partner with companies. We do not compete against them,” said Lohkamp. “We are the watchdogs, the stewards of the technology.”

Crane anticipates becoming the “technical agent” in the Navy’s program to develop a new laser-based directed IR countermeasure for tactical aircraft, called TADIRCM. The lab would work in support of the program office, at the Naval Air Systems Command.

The Naval Research Laboratory already built a DIRCM prototype system for a fighter aircraft. A congressional add-on in fiscal year 2004 would provide funds for NRL to upgrade the technology with a new infrared missile warning system and a new turret.

The TADIRCM program is not in the Navy’s budget yet, but Crane officials anticipate funding will be available in fiscal year 2006.

If the TADIRCM development is successful, the technology could transition to commercial aircraft, Lohkamp said. Although expendables cost less than laser DIRCM systems, over the long term, lasers could become more attractive, depending on usage patterns. Once the laser is up and running, it could be relatively inexpensive to operate, compared to releasing flares. Specific cost estimates are difficult to do without knowing the mission requirements, Lohkamp said.


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