The Navy is considering a novel way to protect its fighter pilots: firing live shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles at them to train them in evasive action and test aircraft missile warning systems.
The shoulder-fired missiles in the hands of terrorists, criminal and enemy fighters pose a worldwide problem. Insurgents in Iraq during the war posted YouTube videos showing their deadly ability with the weapons against U.S. military helicopters.
The Navy disclosed its intentions earlier this month in a little-noticed request for information. The request asks defense contractors if they can build a "missile surrogate" that would replicate the missile, also known as a Man-Portable Air Defense System.
"The MANPADS missile surrogate shall have a missile body with a rocket motor that replicates the ultraviolet and infrared signatures of specific threat MANPADS during their launch and fly-out, including eject, boost and sustain phases," the Naval Surface Warfare Center says in the request for information.
The MANPADS missile surrogate shall exhibit the same spectral, spatial, and temporal characteristics of the actual threat missile it is intended to replicate," the Navy says. "The one exception is that the kinematic range of the missile surrogate should be such that the missile can be fired safely within two to three kilometers of a manned aircraft and not reach the aircraft."
The Navy wants their dummy missile to be recoverable so they can be reused.
"This would be a great training device for tactical pilots if they can be sure it will stop well short of hitting them," said Fox News contributor Lea Gabrielle, a Naval Academy graduate and former fighter pilot who saw action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. "Knowing a missile was flying towards me—even in training—would certainly motivate me to take evasive action. There's nothing better than training with the same sight picture that you would see in combat."
Joe Robinson, president and chief engineer of Missile Design, a Huntsville, Ala., firm, has invented a missile surrogate and is helping the Army develop a prototype.
"It's going to take thousands of shots before anyone can feel comfortable firing it at an aircraft," the engineer said.
He said the military's aircraft warning system is so sophisticated that simulating a MANPADS missile doesn't work.
"The way the system is designed, they can only be properly tested with real missiles," he said.
"Anything that isn't a real missile isn't an effective test," he added. "We've done everything on ground-based equipment. It's just not good enough."
Documents from the Army's Research, Development and Engineering Command put the cost of firing a fake missile at $100,000 a pop.