Anti-missile fight widens

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US Department of Homeland Security to weigh up alternatives to laser jammers

High-power laser and microwave weapons and flare-based anti-missile systems are to be evaluated by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) as potential alternatives, or adjuncts, to aircraft-mounted laser jammers to protect commercial airliners against man-portable air defence systems (Manpads).

Contracts totalling $7.4 million to evaluate and demonstrate counter-Manpads technologies have been awarded to L-3 Avisys for its flare-based Commercial Aircraft Protection System (CAPS), Northrop Grumman for its Skyguard high-power laser and Raytheon for its Vigilant Eagle high-power microwave - the latter two ground-based systems designed to provide a "bubble" of protection around an airport.

Additionally, Congress has voted the DHS $32 million in additional funding in fiscal year 2007 to extend its operational evaluation of aircraft-mounted directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) systems to passenger aircraft. An 18-month evaluation of Northrop Grumman's Guardian DIRCM in revenue service is now getting under way on Boeing MD-10 freighters operated by FedEx Express, and BAE Systems is hopeful that the DHS will fund an in-service trial of its JetEye DIRCM on passenger aircraft.

Meanwhile, Israel is trying to interest the DHS in co-operating on development of an Elbit/Rafael DIRCM with a powerful fibre laser able to jam advanced missiles with imaging seekers. While a flare-based system has been installed on some El Al aircraft, the DIRCM has been selected by Israel as the long-term solution to the missile threat. The DHS has also been invited to evaluate a classified system, Authenticator, that allows Israeli air traffic control to verify an arriving aircraft is not hostile.

Raytheon says its 18-month, $4.1 million Vigilant Eagle contract covers demonstration of the missile detection and tracking sensors and command-and-control system using an interoperability testbed at a site to be determined by the DHS. The high-power microwave weapon will not be tested, but has been proven for the US military, the company says. Under its $1.9 million contract, Northrop will develop an operational concept for its Skyguard, test components and assess life-cycle costs.

Raytheon says it could produce 25 systems to protect the top 25 high-use US airports for an average unit cost of $25 million, with the first system installed and working within 18 months of go-ahead. Under the DIRCM programme, the DHS has set a target unit cost of under $1 million by the 1,000th system. BAE and Northrop say they will come in well under that figure.

Northrop's Skyguard is based on the mobile version of the Tactical High-Energy Laser testbed, a chemical laser that shot down various airborne targets in tests. The 10km (5.5nm)-range system is also being proposed to Israel.

L-3 Avisys, meanwhile, says its $1.4 million DHS contract covers frequency interoperability and allocation analyses for its second-generation CAPS 2, which uses a Thales MWS-20 active pulse-Doppler missile warning system. This is combined with pyrophoric "dark" flares that pose less safety risk than conventional pyrotechnic flares, use of which is opposed by the US Federal Aviation Administration.