By Mary Kirby in Philadelphia
Laser-based counter-Manpads (man-portable air defence systems) can protect airliners from missile attacks, but prototypes have so far only partially met US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) performance requirements and show limitations when adapted to the commercial aviation environment.
In a report to the US Congress, the DHS's study of the completed first and second phases of its two-year counter-Manpads trial also stresses that testing of the military directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) systems adapted for commercial use by programme participants BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman is not complete, and further analysis of "integration complexities" is still required before final assessment.
Testing and analysis will be pursued during phase three of the programme, which is expected to formally begin this month, involving the operational evaluation of counter-Manpads installed on aircraft operated by US cargo carriers.
BAE and Northrop are preparing for this final part of the programme, which is expected to last about 18 months and cost the US government about $110 million.
In phase two, Northrop tested its Guardian laser jammer on a FedEx Express Boeing MD-11 and on a wet-leased Boeing 747-300. BAE, meanwhile, flight tested its JetEye commercial DIRCM system on an American Airlines Boeing 767-200. A supplemental type certificate on the type is imminent. For phase three, BAE will install JetEye on a 767 operated by US cargo operator ABX Air and will continue to fly the American 767 as a test platform.
The two manufacturers' initial performance assessments indicate that a counter-Manpads system "in either a distributed or pod configuration" can protect commercial aircraft selected and tested during phase two, says the DHS.
But the regulator caveats this validation by noting that additional design, development, testing and operation in the commercial environment is required "to improve reliability, reduce drag and weight, incorporate technology protection, enhance producibility, and incorporate additional event notification capabilities".
The DHS says that if narrowbodies and regional jets are to be equipped, further design refinements, integration, and tests must be undertaken. While the DHS acknowledges it is feasible to transfer selected military technology to commercial aviation, it cites challenges "from logistics, cost, export control and, to some extent, from a liability perspective".
Substantial affordability implications are raised by the proposed prototype units. "The risk remains moderate to high that the commercial airlines' economic business model, which emphasises high reliability and low cost, would be adversely impacted by the current prototypes," says the agency.
The DHS, however, warns that its cost threshold of $300 per flight is not being met, although it says its goal of reducing total costs to $1 million by the the 1,000th installation seems attainable by at least one of the two current contractors.
It also says that until a significant number of counter-Manpads units are installed and maintained by airlines, uncertainty about operations and maintenance costs will remain. Another significant factor is the acquisition time necessary to produce and install the equipment, the DHS says.