DHS funds two anti-missile efforts

 - October 1, 2007, 10:43 AM

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has awarded two $45 million contracts for further research into shoulder-launched-missile protection systems for commercial aircraft. BAE Systems, based in Nashua, N.H., and Northrop Grumman each got the nod to take its program to the Phase II level–a time period covering the 18 months from August this year through January 2006.

The companies’ programs are focused on adapting existing military systems to civilian use, and the awards come as part of a government push to investigate the viability of providing protection for the U.S. airline fleet. Still, the resulting economy of scale could benefit business jets too by increasing the sophistication of airborne protection systems and bringing down their prices. The programs that received the current funding approval are developing systems meant to detect and divert shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, so-called man portable air defense systems, or manpads.

Interest in such technology was high following an unsuccessful missile attack on an Israeli 757 taking off from Mombasa, Kenya, in 2002, and a subsequent attack last year on a DHL A300 freighter climbing out from Baghdad. The missile attack on the 757 is widely cited as the first on a civil airliner outside an internationally recognized war zone. The early-technology, Russian-built SA-7s fired at the Israeli airliner missed, but those fired at the DHL Airbus struck its left wing, knocking out all three hydraulic systems and rendering the controls inoperable. In a commendable feat of flying, the crew returned and landed at Baghdad by using differential engine thrust for pitch and roll control.

But as each month passes without a missile attack on a U.S. airliner, long-term prospects wane for a program to equip the entire airline fleet with countermeasures technology. With an initial projected cost of some $10 billion, the program begs the question not only of cost-effectiveness, but of who would foot the bill. Cash-strapped airlines protest they are not in a position to pay to equip their aircraft, train crews and fund ongoing maintenance for the countermeasures systems. Airlines further claim that since the threat of attack is a national-defense concern, the government should pay the cost.

A recent appearance before Congress by the Air Transport Association appealed to lawmakers along those lines, citing estimates of $100 billion to counter the missile threat over the next two decades. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) mirrored this view in a working paper it presented to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) last month. IATA wrote, “[National governments] have the responsibility for protection of civil aircraft operating in or through airspace over the territory of that state. This includes protection against attack by manpads on civil aircraft operating at vulnerable altitudes, particularly during the takeoff and landing phases at airports in that state, and full funding of any countermeasures to be implemented to counter this threat.” But IATA diverged from the tack of promoting direct government funding of countermeasures hardware for aircraft when it wrote, “The most effective countermeasure to this threat involves preventing these systems from being used or becoming a threat in the first place.”

Addressing the Missile Threat
The U.S. government seems to agree. In March, the DHS outlined the multilayered national strategy for countering the missile threat. The entire program is divided into three efforts: non-proliferation, tactical operations and technical countermeasures. Supporting agencies include the FAA, for its control of the national airspace system, and intelligence providers such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), the CIA and the FBI.

The State Department heads the non-proliferation phase of the strategy, which includes using intelligence assets to monitor global stockpiles of manpads; controlling further exports of U.S. missiles; and a buy-back program, in which the government has made it well known to black-market sellers of manpads that it will meet or exceed offers from so-called “non-state” or terrorist groups.

Besides the direct effect of taking missiles off the black market, the buy-back program has the benefit of driving up the prices of such weapons among rogue arms dealers. Even for terrorist groups that have the deep pockets to pay the inflated price for manpads, acquiring them has become more problematic. Following 9/11, the State Department has drastically stepped up its international surveillance of financial activity. Anyone moving around large sums of money is much more likely, today, to attract the attention of international security agencies than before 9/11. As prices soar upward, the prospect of purchasing missiles with undetected funds becomes less likely.

The DHS and Transportation Security Administration are responsible for the tactical operations aspect of the national counter-manpads strategy. In this segment of the security matrix, the agencies address airport vulnerability assessments and mitigation plans; guidelines for identifying and reporting threats; and elevated alert guidelines. In other words, “tactical operations” are efforts to minimize the threat of missile attacks in three phases. First comes the scoping out of the environment surrounding airports for possible launching sites. Having assessed the airport and its surrounding terrain for likely launch sites, authorities then establish guidelines for what to do about those sites. Maybe a stand of trees off the end of a runway ought to be cut down or an unused service road secured with locked security gates. There has even been talk within the DHS of video or satellite surveillance of some airport environments. Finally, there’s the matter of determining how and where to ratchet up airport-perimeter security measures during elevated alert levels. Higher levels of alert could mandate 24-hour local police presence at vulnerable sites or even calling out the military to watch over and protect the airport area.

Assessing Technical Countermeasures

But the element of the national strategy that has captured the most attention is the technical countermeasures segment–mandated to “re- engineer and demonstrate technologies to counter threat.” There are many reasons why this facet of the anti-manpads effort has drawn the most interest. First, the other measures involve protracted programs made up of many small pieces of a puzzle–most of which cannot
be made public without compromising their effectiveness. Also, there is the perception of countermeasures equipment as a silver bullet to eliminate the threat. The pilot flips a switch and the airplane is safe. As the logic goes, once Congress has written the check and the airlines have installed the equipment, we’re all secure from missile attacks. So what reason can there possibly be for not spending the money?

The DHS’s current bidding program is meant to answer that question. The stated program objectives as outlined during the DHS industry forum in March are: evaluate mature technologies (existing military systems) that will best protect airliners from shoulder-launched missiles; balance life cycle cost and schedule performance; clarify needs and requirements of the aviation community stakeholders (which could include business aircraft operators); and provide analysis and data to support the decision-making process. That data includes effectiveness; FAA certification capability; life cycle costs; aircraft integration issues; and reliability and maintainability.

The initial solicitation for bids for the program went out on October 3 last year. Twenty-four white papers came in, from which five companies were selected to submit full proposals and oral presentations. In January, the DHS awarded three of the bidders (BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and United Airlines) funding to participate in Phase I. The program called for one or two bidders to be “down selected” in July. As it happened, United was the odd bidder out, leaving BAE and Northrop Grumman.

BAE’s team includes partners Delta Tech Ops (a division of Delta Air Lines), American Airlines, Honeywell and Sargent Fletcher (a leading manufacturer of special mission equipment for military aircraft). Key technologies include an ultraviolet sensor to act as a missile warning system; a point-and-track system to follow the missile’s flight path; and a multi-band laser to confuse the missile’s heat seeker.

Northrop Grumman’s team includes Northwest Airlines and FedEx. Key technologies include a missile sensor based on Northrop Grumman’s AN/AAQ-54 and -24(V) military systems, of which some 1,500 are in the field. The contractor has built and delivered some 267 Viper laser point/trackers. The laser infrared jamming system is also listed as a “mature technology” based on military programs.

One of the most illuminating segments of the DHS presentation involved the central challenges of developing airborne protection systems. The agency divided its concerns into five main categories, each with several subcategories, and three additional bullet points. Under “system performance requirements,” the DHS listed the following topics: false alarm rates; missile warning systems; countermeasure effectiveness; and operations concepts. Under “Aircraft Integration and FAA Certification,” the agency listed: multiple aircraft types, models and configurations; cost-benefit; weight/space/power; drag and performance penalty; safety of flight/personnel safety; and system reliability. “Supportability” heads the category in which the following concerns are listed: reliability; maintainability; and training. Under “Test and Evaluation” the DHS lists: modeling and simulation; hardware in the loop; flight testing; operational testing; and wind tunnel [tests]. “Security Management Concerns” include: anti-tamper coatings; and anti-tamper hardware. Finally, the DHS’s list of challenges includes the following three bullet points: national airspace integration for emergency notification; criteria for potential deployment options (i.e. breaking in the technology with the civil reserve air fleet; overseas operations; regional airlines; or all aircraft); and, last but not least, a life cycle cost analysis.

The DHS recognizes that external factors will play a significant role in the continuation or termination of the anti-manpads program. The agency cited the following influences, each of which will have a significant effect on the program: White House and congressional interest; media interest; economic issues and requirements; geo-political issues and requirements; aviation certifications; radio frequency authorization; export compliance; and buy-in from stakeholders within the aviation community.

The latter group is broken down as follows:
Aviation associations (including the Air Transport Association, Air Traffic Control Association, National Center for Aviation Security, ICAO and IATA–but, significantly, not NBAA)

Maintainers (the list is made up of unions whose members work in aircraft maintenance)

Unions (including pilots’ and controllers’ representatives)

Government (specifically the NTSB)

Airlines and commercial cargo carriers (including finance companies that lease aircraft)

Airport operators and authorities

Third-party maintainers and integrators

The financial industry (lenders, Wall Street and insurance companies and adjusters)

The legal profession and the courts

Among all the DHS’s diverse concerns, stakeholders and sources of input into manpads protection systems, the business aviation community is conspicuous by its absence. Clearly, the security agency’s focus is on airlines and airline-specific airports.

Current Countermeasures Options
Though not widely spoken of, infrared (heat-seeking) countermeasures equipment is already available for business aircraft–and is currently in use. Gulfstream offers
the BAE Systems AN/ALQ-204 Matador, now estimated to cost about $2.5 million, including installation and crew training. Gulfstream will not disclose how many of its airplanes carry the system, which also flies on some Boeing 747s and BAe 146s. On a Gulfstream, the Matador system weighs about 350 pounds and is claimed
to incur no aerodynamic penalty. It can be installed during a regular maintenance visit, according to the airframer.

The Matador is a “lamp-based” system. That is, it uses a matrix of heat transmitters to confuse the heat-seeking sensor in the missile. The most sophisticated systems use lasers to deflect the missiles’ sensors. Among manufacturers of countermeasures, there is disagreement about how much sophistication is enough. Some say lamp-based systems can do the job and lasers are too expensive. Laser proponents say their systems weigh less, take up less space and are capable of thwarting the most sophisticated shoulder-launched missiles. Among Russian-designed manpads, the SA-16/18 class is the state of the art–said to have shot down the lion’s share of allied aircraft lost during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

The surviving research teams led by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman face a daunting challenge over the next 15 months. If the competitors succeed in answering all the concerns cited by the DHS, then we may see some or all U.S. airliners–and possibly those of foreign carriers–equipped with anti-missile systems. In turn, that could bring the cost of such systems down sufficiently that business aviation operators will consider equipping their aircraft. Logically, the priority pyramid of possible customers would begin with those regularly flying to politically unstable areas of the world. It would work its way down to other operators as
a function of cited factors such as cost, performance, reliability, maintainability, performance penalty (if any) and ease of operation. Could the day come when all business jets, large and small, will incorporate anti-missile technology as standard equipment? We’ll know a lot more after Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems complete their research projects in January 2006.