Monday, February 27, 2006

Lack of Urgency

The following story appeared on eDefense on Friday:

US Army Planning Large Missile-Warner Buy

The US Army intends to issue a contract, valued at $1.4 billion, within the next two months for the procurement of more than 2,000 Common Missile Warning Systems (CMWSs) over the next five years for its helicopter fleet.


According to a pre-solicitation notice released by the Army on Jan. 30, the service plans to award the $1.4-billion indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract to BAE Systems (Nashua, NH), the developer and producer of the AN/AAR-57 CMWS. According to Chris Ager, business-development manager for BAE Systems, the contract is expected to call for the delivery of about 40 systems per month over the five-year period covered by the contract, for a total of over 2,000 systems, plus life-cycle support.

These systems, Ager said, will be shipped "directly out to where the Army needs them" – in other words, places like Iraq and Afghanistan. "The Army's focus has been on getting as many CMWSs into the field as possible," he said, adding that the helicopters that are "top priority for CMWS are aircraft involved in the global war on terror."

This should come as no surprise, since as far back as November 2003, in the wake of the loss of two Army helicopters in Iraq (see "Choppers in the Crosshairs in Iraq"), then Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee issued a memo calling for action to boost the self-protection capabilities of the service's helicopter fleet (see "Army Helo EW Upgrades: URGENT!"). In that memo, Brownlee wrote, "Like other force protection measures, this is URGENT!"
Since then, the Army has been pushing to get the CMWS fielded on as many of its helicopters in the field as possible, including an $27.8-million order for 50 of the systems in 2004 (see "US Army Helos to Receive New IR Countermeasures"). At that time, Army requirements called for the procurement of just 1,078 CMWSs. The contract expected to be issued in the next couple of months, though, would almost double that number.

Ager said that the systems that have already been fielded have proven to be operationally effective against threats in theater. He did concede, however, that there were some false-alarm issues with the fielded systems initially (see "US Army Helos Getting False Alarms"). "We met the specifications to the letter," he explained, "but the system was found to be operationally deficient."

Army CH-47 Chinooks and UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters equipped with the system and flying in Iraq and Afghanistan were receiving alerts in the form of audible and visual warnings when there were no threats. Moreover, these false alarms could also trigger the countermeasures systems onboard the helicopters, which then launch flares that – along with unnecessarily depleting the stores of the decoys on the helicopters – could also give away their positions, particularly during nighttime operations. BAE Systems' solution was to develop new software that alleviated the problem without affecting the system's detection capabilities. This new software, Ager said, has decreased the CMWS's false-alarm rate by a factor of five over the past five months.

While the Army certainly appears firm in its intent in procuring the CMWS for its helicopters – first for those involved in operations supporting the war on terror and then for the rest of the fleet – it is still unclear how the service intends to proceed with the AN/ALQ-212 Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures (ATIRCM) system, which was developed to be paired with the CMWS and provide an active countermeasures capability against IR-guided missiles. Ager said that the Army is still trying to decide whether it would make sense to accelerate the ATIRCM program, as was done with the CMWS.

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Since US forces entered both countries, attacks against US helicopters Iraq and Afghanistan have not been uncommon. Then Acting Army Secretary Brownlee was alarmed enough by such attacks to issue the memo mentioned in the above story, calling the need for increased protection for helicopters "URGENT" (the all-caps there being Browlee's, an indication of how strongly he felt). But that was back in November 2003. It's now February 2006, and the Army still hasn't gotten the CMWS on all of its helicopters engaged in operations in support of the war on terror. Where's the urgency?

Also, while the ability to detect an incoming missile is all well and good, knowing it's coming isn't worth all that much if you can't effectively counter it. Right now, Army helicopters in Iraq are relying on flares and old lamp-based infrared jammers to counter the threat posed by IR-guided missiles. The trouble is, missiles have gotten much more sophisticated since those technologies were first introduced (take the Russian-made Igla, for instance). The Royal Netherlands Air Force understands this and recently fitted its Apache helicopters that were to be deployed to Afghanistan with a new electronic-warfare suite that includes a directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) system, and the USAF has been working to get as many of its transport aircraft serving in theater equipped with the Large Aircraft Countermeasures (LAIRCM) system for some time now. Why hasn't the US Army followed suit? Right now, the Army is stuck in a planning stage, considering whether or not to accelerate the ATIRCM program? What's there to consider? The threat is there (indeed, has been there for some time), and the need for modern, effective countermeasures is now. Again, there's just no sense of urgency.

And that's just looking at the IR threat. Insurgents in Iraq have also targeted US helicopters with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs). Less than a year ago, we noted on eDefense that electronic countermeasures (ECM) were ineffective against RPGs. Well, ECM might be, but that doesn't mean there may not be some means of protection available. Turns out there's a system called Quick Kill that was demonstrated earlier this year. The demonstration simulated an RPG attack against a ground combat vehicle, but the system's developers say it would work equally well (with some modifications, of course) on a helicopter. The Army has already been briefed on such a possible application, but will Army Aviation take a hard look at the Quick Kill system? Time will tell. Let's just hope it's not too much time.

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