BAE, Northrop carry on with missile defense research

Teams lead by BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman Corp. were chosen to further design, develop and test prototypes for protecting civilian aircraft from shoulder-fired missiles.

Each team is receiving $45 million during the next 18 months to test if countermeasures against so-called Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) can be successfully adapted for commercial airplanes in a cost-effective way. Similar systems protect military aircraft.

The Homeland Security Department's Science and Technology Directorate, which is leading this pilot program, began the effort in January with BAE, Northrop Grumman and United Air Lines Inc. each leading a team. In that phase, each team was given $2 million.

The first phase involved preliminary design reviews, including associated costs, said Penrose Albright, assistant secretary for science and technology, in a telephone conference call yesterday. This second phase, he said, involves developing those system engineering concepts into a much more detailed and robust critical design review for the eventual production, installation and testing of the prototypes.

The prototypes will require Federal Aviation Administration certification and independent evaluation by a third party. After the 18-month second phase, Albright said, they will be in a better position to understand acquisition, operating and support costs, ground support issues, and other concerns so high-level administration officials and Congress can make an informed decision about the technology's viability and adaptability.

"The challenges and adaptation of this technology for use commercially in the United States are highly significant and none trivial," he said. "For example, the maintenance and logistics and supply chains associated with operating this in the commercial air fleet are clearly significantly different than what one would be used to and be willing to tolerate in a military environment."

Such challenges involve safety, maintenance issues and management of false alarms in a civilian environment that could potentially shut down an airport.

Both BAE and Northrop Grumman will develop laser-based jammer systems — known as Directed InfraRed CounterMeasure (DIRCM) — although their actual concepts are fundamentally different, Albright said. An aircraft equipped with a DIRCM system can detect an infrared missile and aim a laser at the missile's seeker head, jamming the guidance system.

"If you see it actually shown on a video, it's really pretty impressive -- the missile's in flight, and all of a sudden, it flies right into the dirt," Albright said.

The United Airlines team developed a flare-based system that fires low-temperature decoys to deflect missiles.

DHS officials have no credible intelligence information about a planned MANPADS attack on aircraft.

DHS Science and Technology officials have also been working with officials from the FAA, Transportation Security Administration, State Department and Defense Department.

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