Passengers on a possibly imminent flight by a particular El Al Boeing 737-800 – with registration 4X-EKA – may not realise it, but they will be flying onboard arguably the safest commercial aircraft in the skies.
That’s because in addition to the airworthiness criteria observed by all commercial aircraft, this particular 737-800 could be the first commercial aircraft protected by a directional infrared countermeasure (DIRCM) system in the El Al fleet. For the first time, a commercial aircraft will be both airworthy and missile-safe.
The Elbit Systems C-MUSIC pod was shown installed on 4X-EKA last June, but the DIRCM system still had not been activated in commercial service as of mid-December.
“We are very close,” says Mike Yanoov, director of business development and marketing for Elop, the division of Elbit producing DIRCM systems.
The first flight with a working C-MUSIC pod will not be announced for obvious reasons. “I’m sure the security will not allow it,” Yanoov says.
But the quiet event will represent the first tangible fruit of a nearly 12-year effort to protect all commercial aircraft flown by Israel’s three airlines – El Al, Arkia and Israir. It also establishes Israel as the leader in a rapidly emerging export market for protecting a wide range of commercial, VIP and military aircraft.
It began after a terrorist attack in Mombasa, Kenya in 2002. Two SA-7 “Strela” shoulder-fired missiles were fired at an Arkia Airlines Boeing 757-300 loaded with 261 passengers and 10 crew members. The pilots reported hearing a “boom”, which felt like a bird strike. But the crew and passengers of Flight 582 were lucky: both missiles had narrowly missed the aircraft.
Although a disaster was averted, the near-miss prompted an immediate worldwide response. Governments formed an inter-agency task force to track down and secure tens of thousands of man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) scattered around the world. Those efforts locked down the majority of unsecured systems, but the collapse of the Iraqi and Libyan governments allowed hundreds and perhaps thousands of shoulder-fired missiles to escape.
Meanwhile, the governments of Israel, the USA and Europe funded separate programmes to demonstrate military-grade DIRCM technology on commercial airliners. The US Congress considered making a law requiring all commercial aircraft to be equipped with counter-MANPADS systems in US airspace. However, only Israel followed through with a programme to equip the country’s airline fleet.
“The aircraft [in Mombasa] was not shot down, but it was a big alarm,” Yanoov says. “The government of Israel took a very fast approach to go and protect these aircraft.”
Israel’s ministry of transport awarded a $76 million contract in 2009 to develop the technology that became the C-MUSIC for commercial aircraft. The government is also paying to install the pods on each aircraft in an Israeli fleet comprised of Boeing, Airbus and Embraer types. The government is also compensating the airlines for the weight and drag penalty of the C-MUSIC pod on fuel consumption.
The C-MUSIC pod, which is installed on the 737 under the fuselage just aft of the trailing edge of the wing, is installed with eight screws and takes about “one hour”, Yanoov says.
The pod integrates a missile warning system, two tracking sensors and the turret for the laser jammer. The warning system cues the tracking camera, which steers the turret to fire the laser into the seeker of the incoming missile.
Although Elop officials are satisfied their product provides the most protection at the least cost, they are pragmatic about the appeal of DIRCM technology to airlines outside Israel.
Indeed, the 2010 final report of the European Commission’s civil aircraft security against MANPADS (CASAM) project estimated the costs. Average air fares would rise by €1.80-4.64 ($2.44-6.28) to equip 3,000 commercial aircraft. A 2010 report by the US Department of Homeland Security concluded that equipping and servicing all large commercial aircraft flown by US airlines with DIRCM systems would cost $43 billion.
“In the end it will cost you more for a ticket,” Yanoov says. “It’s not a big deal, but still, for airlines, it probably won’t go.”
For commercial airlines, the complications of an installed DIRCM system are not entirely economic. Militaries use the same technology to protect their helicopters and transport aircraft. That means the sensors, electronics and lasers inside the pod are considered classified technology. For Israel’s airlines, the pods can be repaired only by certified Elbit personnel in controlled circumstances.
In the near term, Elop is focused on developing the MUSIC technology for a range of applications beyond the commercial market.
Last year, Embraer selected a distributed system called J-MUSIC to equip the KC-390 tanker-transport.
“This is the hot potato right now,” Yanoov says. “It can be installed in a single or dual turret configuration. It protects any type of larger transport, trainers, special missions, VIP aircraft. Everybody is looking for this. Right now, we are almost the only ones in the market that can provide the solution with an exportable open architecture.”
Another market Elop is exploring for MUSIC is the protection of military rotorcraft. The Mini-MUSIC repackages the 125kg (275lb) pod for the 737 into a 19kg system, making it attractive to light attack and utility helicopters, Yanoov says.
“This is going to be what everybody is looking for,” he says. “If you go to small attack helicopters, or small search and rescue mission helicopters, etc, the Mini-MUSIC is the right solution,” Yanoov says.
In the future, militaries could also consider integrating DIRCM technology in fast-moving fighters. “We have begun hearing ideas of having DIRCM on fighters maybe towards the 2020s,” Yanoov says. “Right now it is a technology that air forces are thinking about. We’re thinking about it. It will take more time.”