Northrop Grumman Beats BAE in Army Antimissile System Competition

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Army has selected a new antimissile system for its combat helicopters after a tightly contested matchup between two of the nation’s top defense contractors.

The Army on Friday awarded Northrop Grumman a $35.3 million contract to produce a laser antimissile system, called common infrared countermeasure, or CIRCM, to protect aircraft from shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles and other guided weapons. 

BAE Systems is the current supplier of antimissile systems for Army helicopters, so the Army’s decision is seen as a big blow to the company.

The Aug. 28 award, however, far from guarantees Northrop will become the Army’s only CIRCM supplier. The contract gives the Army ample opportunities to test the equipment before it commits to buying large quantities of the systems.

Northrop officials hailed the award as recognition that the company’s CIRCM offering gives the Army better technology than what it current has.

“We believe there is only one company that has been selected,” said Jeff Palombo, sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman's land and self-protection systems, in Rolling Meadows, Illinois.

The contract awarded Friday funds 21 CIRCM “B kits” that will be tested in different Army helicopters, Palombo told National Defense Aug. 31. “The initial award provides incremental funding for the nonrecurring engineering portion of the job.”

Full production would begin in 2019. The Army has budgeted about $1 billion over the next five years for the program, including contractor and government costs.

Both Northrop and BAE had successfully tested prototypes over a three-year development program that ended in March. The Army on June 4 asked both firms to submit their best and final offers.

Palombo said between now and October 2017, the Army will be able to exercise options for further development and low-rate initial production of the systems.

“Like many engineering and manufacturing development contracts, there are time-phased options,” he said. “The customer always has the opportunity to put options on their contracts at their discretion.”

All options were priced in the bidders’ proposals, such as low-rate production orders to equip Army Chinook, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters. There are also options for the A-kits for those airplanes, which are the electronics and mechanical parts that are necessary to install the CIRCM system in the aircraft.

The Army structured the contract so it can first test the systems and ask for changes before it buys larger quantities. “EMD options are becoming more common” in military contracts, Palombo said.

“During EMD you’re going to build units upfront, then you do environmental, integration, qualification and reliability testing,” he said. The company would make design or engineering modifications based on test results. “It’s very typical of the government to not order all the options at once but rather wait until the system is sufficiently tested and matured before they put those other options on contract.”

That flexibility would allow the Army, for instance, to choose options to equip different helicopter models based on needs and available funding.

The new CIRCM would replace an existing infrared countermeasure system made by BAE Systems that the Army bought six years ago for emergency combat deployments but now considers too heavy and too expensive.

Northrop and BAE are the nation’s only manufacturers of directional infrared countermeasures. Northrop Grumman currently supplies infrared countermeasures to the Air Force and Navy for both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.BAE officials had argued that choosing Northrop for the Army work would further consolidate the market and possibly eliminate a competitor.

Paul Roberts, spokesman for BAE Systems Electronic Systems, said the company was “disappointed by this decision.” In a statement to National Defense, he said the company has not yet decided whether it will protest the award. “We are currently considering all of our options as we prepare to be briefed by the Army about the decision."

Palombo said Northrop’s “open systems architecture” likely gave it the edge, as it would make it easier to update the system over time, if enemies deploy more advanced missiles. Older aircraft missile-warning systems use flare dispensers to confuse the sensors of incoming missiles. Newer missile designs have more complex seekers that are able to defeat flares.

The Army wants to eventually procure CIRCM in large quantities so it can provide aircraft with 360-degree coverage.

“Infrared missile threats are constantly changing,” said Palombo. “So we make sure our systems are kept relevant as technology changes to make sure we can address any new threats,” he added. “An open architecture lends itself to rapid changes.”

Northrop’s CIRCM supplier team includes Daylight Solutions of San Diego, and Selex ES, of Edinburgh, Scotland.

Topics: Aviation, Rotary Wing, Tactical Aircraft, Combat Survivability

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