Enhancing and Defending Air Mobility



U.S. and allied forces have relied significantly on various air mobility assets in Iraq and Afghanistan and protecting these assets  has been crucial to mission success. Awareness of threats is a precondition for dealing with them.

Coping with various manpads threats to air assets is a significant and constant problem.  The Libyan crisis reminds us once again of the manpads challenge.  As Richard Weitz indicated:

The immediate worry is that some of the MANPADs (Man-Portable Air Defense Systems) Gadhafi’s forces and the rebels possess could fall into the wrong hands.

Lapan said that, “They remain a concern, because of their portability.” In April, General Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, estimated that there were perhaps 20,000 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles in Libya.


(Also see Carlo Munoz on missing manpads, https://sldinfo.com/missing-libya-missiles-already-smuggled-out-u-s-searches-for-them/).

Part of the answer to protecting air mobility – rotor and fixed wing – as well as with enhancing situational awareness lies in the evolution of defense capabilities.

Second Line of Defense sat down recently with Carl Smith, Vice President of the Infrared Countermeasures (IRCM) organization within the Land and Self Protection Systems Division of Northrop Grumman Corporation, to discuss the evolution of defensive aides to deal with the evolving threat.

The Manpads Threat Profile Credit: Northrop Grumman Corporation

SLD: We understand that Northrop Grumman is the largest manufacturer of IRCM equipment.  Could you give us a sense of the approach you take to IRCM technology?

Smith: When I first came in as a new grad engineer, I was fortunate enough to be assigned to the infrared countermeasures business area. Back then it was big flash lamps that had a life span of about eight hours, so as you could imagine, there were numerous repair and depot challenges.

We then went to smaller lamp-based systems which were lighter and much more reliable.  Then, in the early ’90s, we started working on laser-based systems, the third generation of our product line.

In more recent years, we continued to improve our laser-based offering, ensuring maximum jamming capabilities for our warfighting customers.  We further refined the pointer tracker assembly moving from the small laser transmitter to the miniature pointer tracker assembly which is  lighter and more compact.  On the laser side, we more than doubled our production capacity in 2008 by introducing a second laser production facility.  To date we have more than 2,200 lasers currently fielded and over 750 aircraft have been outfitted with our laser-based IRCM systems in various configurations.

In terms of installation, we generally mount five or six missile warning sensors around the aircraft and depending on the size of the platform, one to three turrets. There’s also a processor that goes with the system configuration as well as a control interface unit that the crew has access to manage the system.

The crew, however, does not need to intervene during an engagement.  The system functions by automatically detecting a missile launch, determining if it is a threat and activating the  pointer tracker to track and direct laser energy to defeat the missile.  This happens in two to three seconds.  Most engagements, for fixed-wing aircraft, happen on take-off and landing but helicopters, on the other hand, are at risk the entire time they are in flight.

We are currently working on what we call our fifth generation system specifically designed for the U.S. Army’s CIRCM program, or the Common Infrared Countermeasures program.  Earlier this year we turned in a proposal offering our latest IRCM architecture and system capability specs as part of the ongoing competition.

SLD: Could you talk to evolution of the capability?

Smith: We’ve really done a lot for high value, fixed-wing aircraft. Our system is installed and protecting the U.S. Air Force’s C-17s, C-5s, and C-130s, the big high flyers..  We have also worked closely with the U.K. MoD both for their rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft.  In addition, our DoN LAIRCM system (Department of Navy Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures)is protecting U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps CH-53s and CH-46s.

The U.S. Army’s CIRCM program is our latest focus and we designed a new, fifth generation, smaller, lighter yet  more realible system specifically for their rotary-wing application. Cost, weight and power requirements are key considerations for any rotary-wing application and our solution is poised to meet the Army’s requirements and needs.

Northrop Grumman has been in the IRCM market for the past 50 years and working laser-IRCM solutions for the past15 years and we’ve learned alot.  We have more than a million hours of performance in the field. We’ve had over 830 live fire engagements.  We have the experience to position us to meet and defeat the challenges of today and tomorrow.  We designed our fifth generation system with a modular open system architecture because we need the flexibility tospiral new capabilities and  new solution sets into our framework.  Providing standard interfaces and common definitions that everyone understands, will allow us to upgrade the system in the future.

Northrop Grumman is positioned to be a multi-spectral system integrator for air defense system assets. We are a provider of integrated solutions that enhances our customer’s mission capability, with the ability to incorporate emerging technologies and capabilities. As an example, quantum cascade lasers or QCL chip technology is really coming on strong right now and there are a number of people in our industry working toward a QCL solution because it offers scalability and meets power requirements while providing significantly better reliability over conventional laser technologies.  When it comes to emerging technologies, the QCL approach is probably one of the brightest right now for the industry.

We’ve been looking at not only the chip technology, but integrated laser assembly capabilities for a couple of years now.  For CIRCM, we did a lot of front-end work with industry and other partners to reduce risk and the time to hardware fielding. SLD: Clearly one key element of shaping your way forward is the significant historical base that you have of consumer experience, reaching back 15 years in terms of laser based technology but nearly 50 years in defense aides work.  How does the customer experience factor in evolving your solution sets?

Smith: There clearly is a school of hard knocks in IRCM development.  In the past decade, the challenges facing the forces deployed abroad have been an ongoing test and have identified the capabilities they need to enhance mission effectiveness.  They have also highlighted the defensive capabilities that are required to complete these missions.  We have a great digital signal modeling capability that we developed over the years.   Right now we’re very, very fortunate to have a model that correlates directly with what happens in the field, but that doesn’t happen overnight. Development is forged on experience-based learning.

We have made company investments to improve our system reliability as well.  We look very closely at the assets in the field, how they are performing and determine reliability trends.  We then break the data down into root cause as part of our investigation.  We just keep building on our extensive in-theatre performance.

SLD: The sensors you use for IRCM are evolving and you are using them for more than simply counter-measures.  Could you describe that evolution?

Smith: Hostile fire indication is one way we are evolving our IRCM capabilities.  The first thing our customers need to know is what’s being shot at them.  Whether it’s small arms, RPGs, or a MANPAD our new missile warner can distinguish between threat types, geolocate the threat and report this information to the crew.

We have a new product we call ATW, advanced threat warner. It’s a system for the Navy/Marines, for PMA 272 specifically. It’s an upgrade to our two-color infrared missile warning sensor.

We’ve been to live fire with the ATW capability and have  demonstrated it a number of times.  We just received a contract for this system.

Another way our IRCM equipment can be used is for situational awareness. The solution leverages EO DAS technology and provides 360-degree coverage.

Why is that significant for helicopters?  One of the other issues besides hostile fire is diminished visual environment, DVE or sometimes called “Brownout landings.” When the helicopter or the rotorcraft comes in, there’s so much dust blowing up, it’s easy to lose orientation and pilots could land on an object, a boulder, a vehicle, etc.

But now with a two-color sensor, the pilot and crew can see through sand.  We’re positioning our ATW sensor to be a four in one sensorsolution which is our approach to affordability.