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Tanker Testing Missile Detector

Fixed wing or rotary, large aircraft or small – for those who pilot or fly aboard any of them in a combat theater or where there is a threat of terrorism, one of the most feared weapons is a rocket or missile launcher that a man can tote around with him as easily as a camera tripod.

Manpads – for man-portable air defense systems – were the darlings of the U.S. when they were being smuggled into Afghanistan to be used by one-time allies against the Russians. Now many of these allies are the enemy but they’re still using manpads and, whenever they can, they’ll use them against U.S. aircraft.

Now, the laser-based system for detecting, tracking and thwarting them before they can do their dirty work – already installed on C-17 Globemasters, Apache helicopters and other military aircraft – is going to play a role in extending the life of the KC-135 tanker. Because of the Pentagon’s painfully long tanker acquisition process the KC-135 fleet, which most agree should already be taxiing toward retirement, is going to have to stay on the job longer.

And if it’s going to do that, it’s going to need the protection afforded other aircraft from manpads by a Directional Infrared Countermeasures – or DIRCM – system, according to Jack Pledger, director of Infrared Countermeasures for Northrop Grumman, which manufactures the device.

“So now, in September, we’re going to modify a KC-135 to carry a [DIRCM] pod,” he said. The actual aircraft or unit flying the test plane has not yet been identified, but it is an Air National Guard asset, he said.

Tankers typically fly far above and away from actual conflict areas, but they -- like all aircraft -- are vulnerable to attack when landing or taking off, Pledger said.

Although the pod, which weighs up to 500 pounds for large aircraft, is already mounted on C-17 Globemasters among other military planes, the company and the Air Force want to make sure it does not interfere with the tanker’s operations before making it a standard asset. So far, he said, there is no indication the pod should interfere with the vision of the KC-135 boom operator or disrupt airflow around the plane.

The Air Force also is considering testing the pod on the A-10, he said. The A-10 – aka the Warthog -- is the infantryman’s favorite plane for its ability to come in close and rip into enemy positions. And because it does operate low it makes it vulnerable to manpad assault.

Northrop Grumman is not the only company promoting a multi-spectral laser system for rapidly detecting and thwarting manpads or missiles. An Israeli company, Elbit Systems, announced a system called MUSIC – for Multi-spectral Infrared Countermeasure – about two years ago, and recently was promoting the system at the Navy League’s Sea Air Space symposium in Maryland.

But Pledger said the only system of its kind “in full production and flying on aircraft is [DIRCM].”

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