Northrop Grumman is working to finalise a partnership with a US operator in anticipation of a solicitation from the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to participate in tests of anti-missile systems on passenger aircraft.

The manufacturer and BAE Systems are in the third phase of the DHS’s counter-Manpads (man-portable air defense systems) trial, which involves the operational evaluation of their separate laser-based systems on airliners flown by US cargo carriers.

But the DHS, which was recently appropriated additional funding for counter-Manpads testing, is expected to soon issue a request for proposals (RFP) “to do some similar type programme with passenger type aircraft as what we’re doing with cargo aircraft”, Northrop’s directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) business development director Jack Pledger tells Flight.

“We’re waiting for that documentation so that we can see how to respond [but] yes, we plan to participate [and] compete for that as well,” says Pledger.

To that end, Northrop has “a partner in mind” but is “still in the process of finalizing the agreements and documents that have to go along with that”.

In addition to its partnership with FedEx, Northrop has maintained a relationship with Northwest Airlines, which previously committed to provide a Boeing 747 for cargo aircraft testing, but later opted to focus on its restructuring. A 747 flown by FedEx was used instead.

Pledger declines to disclose if Northwest is now planning to partner on the passenger aircraft trials. “We have been in discussion with most of the major airlines about the potential for either test or production programmes on how we would work with them would this come about,” he says.

Northwest could not be immediately reached for comment.

Northrop has, however, made strides in phase three of the DHS’ current programme, which concludes in March 2008. The first of 11 FedEx Boeing MD-10s being equipped with Northrop’s DIRCM pods began flying revenue service on January 16 from Los Angeles international airport, enabling the company to collect valuable logistics data.

Nine of the FedEx freighters will operate in routine revenue service. A total six have already being equipped with the Guardian system, and a seventh “is about to come out of modification”, says Pledger.

He says the programme is “on time” and that Northrop expects to hit its 12,000h of commercial testing by March 2008 deadline.