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Fact Sheet: U.S. Department of Homeland Security Programs Countering Missile Threats to Commercial Aircraft

The Department of Homeland Security has announced it is awarding contracts for the final engineering, prototype development, and deployment testing of a protective system for U.S. commercial aircraft against shoulder fired missiles, known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). Two teams, one led by BAE Systems and one led by Northrop Grumman, are receiving funding of approximately $45 million each for this 18-month final prototype phase of the program. While there is no credible, specific intelligence information about planned MANPADS attacks against U.S. commercial aircraft, Homeland Security has aggressively pursued countermeasures technology development as part of the administration’s strategy to counter this potential threat.

This significantly expedited pilot program is adapting existing technology already in use on military aircraft for commercial aviation use. This technology adaptation approach will speed the development of a deployable prototype, and will ensure that the resulting countermeasures are consistent with airport operations and commercial air carrier logistics and safety that include such activities as maintenance, support, and training.  

While this technology has been used by the U.S. military and some foreign commercial airlines, the challenges in adapting these technologies for use commercially in the United States are significant.  In the military, there are a limited number of air bases from which these planes take-off and land, with personnel and replacement parts dedicated to the maintenance of these technologies at each base. The current military technologies must be serviced after a few flying hours, and there are significant questions about the safety on the ground in the event of a false alarm. In Israel, for example, El Al Airlines is able to use these technologies because they fly out of one airport where their maintenance personnel can all be centrally located. In the U.S., with more than 400 airports and more than 6,000 aircraft in the commercial fleet, the maintenance cost of Counter-MANPADS technology at current system costs would be staggering.  These challenges are being addressed in this prototype development program.

Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Counter-MANPADS Office:

The Homeland Security Counter-MANPADS Program uses a robust and disciplined systems engineering approach to identify, test, evaluate, integrate and support countermeasures for commercial aircraft.  The objectives of the program are to collect information from industry, select the best contractors to perform systems analysis and flight tests, and to devise a plan that will permit modifications of commercial aircraft with the least disruption and out-of-service costs to the airline industry. The purpose of the program is to deliver to policy makers in the executive and legislative branches the data necessary to make an informed decision regarding countermeasures technologies.  

The Technological Context of Challenges and Costs:

• Technologies developed for military or other specialized purposes are currently incompatible with commercial air fleet operations.  Although underlying military technologies will be leveraged, the systems must be adapted to meet commercial operational concepts.

• One likely technology that has been identified for potential commercial use is the so-called Directed InfraRed CounterMeasure (DIRCM), an infrared device that jams missile guidance systems.

• Current DIRCMs cannot be easily adapted to the U.S. commercial air fleet, and must be re-engineered.  The current available DIRCMs have roughly 300 hours of life before they must be repaired or refurbished.  While suitable for the military or special purpose aircraft, given their maintenance and logistical infrastructure, this is not suitable for U.S. commercial air fleet use.  The cost of the training, ground support equipment, supplies and spares, and logistics trail that would need to be in place at every U.S. airport would be significant.  Estimates put this cost at as much as $5 billion to $10 billion per year prior to the re-engineering efforts of this program.

• Military missile countermeasures, such as the Large Aircraft InfraRed CounterMeasure (LAIRCM) unit, which uses Directed InfraRed CounterMeasure (DIRCM) techniques, exist in various stages of development and initial fielding.  The LAIRCM system defeats the threat missile guidance system by directing a high-intensity modulated laser beam into the missile seeker.  However, these technologies are generally utilized by military and Heads-of-State aircraft that have the operations and maintenance infrastructure to support the systems.

• The defense industry has performed limited evaluation of tower-mounted InfraRed CounterMeasure (IRCM) subsystems for ground-based applications as an alternative to airborne installation.  IRCM commercialization requires tightly integrated systems engineering and development, as well as testing and evaluation of existing and emerging military equipment.  Efforts to transition IRCM systems to civilian use face several limitations.  The primary challenges are:

  • Achieving an affordable total cost of ownership;
  • Improving reliability over their military counterparts;
  • Performing less labor and time-intensive maintenance interventions;
  • Decreasing false alarm rates; and
  • Ensuring that these devices can be safely applied in operating environments of civilian aircraft.  

• When evaluating the deployment of IRCMs aboard civilian aircraft, it is also important to consider the effects of using these countermeasures in civilian airspace, specifically in populated areas.  In the event of a MANPADS launch, traditional military pyrotechnic countermeasures (flares) represent a major safety hazard to property and personnel.  Directed countermeasures, such as an on-board laser to disrupt the MANPADS sensor and steer the missile away from the aircraft, appear to be the most promising candidates for application to civilian aircraft.  However, new pyrotechnic and pyrophoric technologies may be adaptable to commercial operations.

• While it is conceivable that existing military IRCM units could be simply re-engineered for civilian aircraft use, many technical and operational tradeoffs have not been analyzed to address the risks of such an approach.  For example, there is an established military logistics infrastructure that serves airborne countermeasure equipment, spanning functions from pilot training and routine maintenance to spare parts and depot repair.  A similar infrastructure would be costly and time-consuming to replicate in the commercial airline industry.

• It would be premature to integrate currently available military IRCM equipment aboard civilian aircraft due to numerous issues concerning aircraft modification and certification, maintenance and supportability, and operational employment.  Even if IRCM equipment were retrofitted on only the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, safety of flight and IRCM operational issues abound because rigorous analytical processes have not been performed. This analysis will occur as part of the multi-phase approach of the Homeland Security Counter-MANPADS program.

Counter-MANPADS Program Phase I:

• In January 2004, the Department of Homeland Security announced the beginning of Phase I of an aggressive 24-month pilot program to develop countermeasures to the potential threat of MANPADS to commercial aircraft.  This pilot program was designed to determine the viability, economic costs, and effectiveness of adapting existing military technology to commercial aviation.  

• Three six-month contracts for Phase I were awarded to teams led by BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman Corporation, and United Airlines, funded at $2 million per team. Phase I provided an analysis of the economic, manufacturing, and maintenance issues involved as well as a preliminary design needed to support a system that is safe and effective for use on commercial aircraft.

• Phase I focused on designing a system that is effective against a broad range of threats and can be installed on commercial aircraft in an economically viable way. This means reworking from the existing military systems maintenance programs, reducing unit and life-cycle costs, increasing reliability, and developing supply and training plans that work within the commercial sector.

• This funding was granted in February 2004 and final presentations by each of the three teams occurred in August 2004.

• BAE Systems and Northup Grumman developed laser-based systems that jam the guidance systems of incoming missiles.  United Airlines developed a flare-based system that would fire off low-temperature decoys to deflect the missiles.

• During Phase I the Counter-MANPADS Program Office worked with other federal agencies with an interest in this issue, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense.

• Homeland Security worked closely with the three companies during Phase I, with four design review meetings for each. Following an initial contract establishment meeting, two subsequent mid-Phase consultations included four-day on-site visits to each of the development facilities. In early August 2004, the teams presented their progress to Homeland Security for a Preliminary Design Review to determine which of the projects would receive $45 million contracts for Phase II.  

Counter-MANPADS Program Phase II:

• Following an examination of each team’s Phase I work and their proposals for Phase II, BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman have been selected for Phase II. A panel of government representatives including officials from the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, Transportation, and Justice made Phase II selections based on four categories: Technical Design, Management, Phase I Performance, and Phase II Cost Proposal.

• During Phase II, which will last 18 months, the contractors’ design solutions will be completed and undergo a Critical Design Review. Following the review, the contractors will fabricate, install, and test their prototypes on commercial aircraft.

• Contractors will deliver two complete countermeasure units for demonstrating system performance.

• Studies will emphasize the operational suitability and cost by collecting data during testing and evaluation for each of the systems.

• Systems will be integrated onto demonstration aircraft and the FAA will certify the aircraft safety and airworthiness of the integrated countermeasure.

• Extensive testing will be conducted by the contractors as well by third parties on behalf of the government. Evaluation will include engineering and operational effectiveness testing, wind tunnel tests, reliability testing, missile detection, and track accuracy testing.  Operational suitability testing will include operating environment testing and maintainability demonstrations to include built-in tests, equipment handling, and special ground support equipment.

• Following the completion of Phase II, the Department of Homeland Security will provide the Administration and Congress with recommendations on the most viable solution to defend against shoulder-fired missiles.

Operational Partnerships:

• Homeland Security officials and others throughout the Administration have been working to counter the threat of a shoulder-fired missile attack on civil aviation.  In December 2002, the Homeland Security Council and the National Security Council convened an interagency task force representing 21 agencies and offices including the Departments of Defense, Treasury and Homeland Security as well the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Bureau of Investigation to develop an aggressive plan to assess and counter the MANPADS threat.  The task force adopted a systematic, end-to-end countermeasures strategy, which is being aggressively implemented through multiple agency initiatives.  The strategy focuses on three areas:

  • Proliferation control and threat reduction
  • Tactical measures and recovery
  • Technical countermeasures

• The Administration has made significant progress with the international community on proliferation control and threat reduction. This includes numerous efforts in working with member countries of the G-8 and other international economic and industry organizations to adopt an effective global strategy that will limit proliferation and potential illicit use of MANPADS.

• Homeland Security leadership is committed to this program, and the Science & Technology directorate has been working with other key stakeholders involved in the potential deployment of a Counter-MANPADS system, including:  

  • Transportation Security Administration – conduct vulnerability assessments and work with law enforcement officials to reduce risks at major airports;
  • Department of State – counter proliferation of shoulder-fired missiles;
  • Federal Aviation Administration – certification of technology for commercial use; and  
  • Department of Defense – provide expert advise on military technology.

• Science & Technology staff members have a working relationship with representatives of the safety, operations, and maintenance areas of the Federal Aviation Administration, which are key to the success of this development and demonstration program.  

• Homeland Security’s systems engineering oversight also included significant contributions from pilots, airport operators, airlines, and ground maintenance professionals.  This industry input ensured that lifecycle costs were analyzed, including acquisition, integration, operation and support, giving all stakeholders an understanding of the total costs associated with any potential system.

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