Control of the air remains a key function of air power for all current and future warfare. But what was once largely a fight between planes has now become a much more complex equation of ground and air-based sensors and self-protection.
Nevertheless, it is still the case today that “the one who sees first wins” – as was the case in the trenches of Flanders during the First World War. Today, however, a great deal of self-protection should take place long before the sensors on board start screaming and flashing.
Oddly enough, the idea of the “immunity” of stealth planes has become firmly established in the public imagination today. However, we are still a long way from a Harry Potter-like “cloak of invisibility”. At its core, stealth is about reducing radar signature in relatively narrow frequency bands rather than making aircraft completely undetectable. But at least stealth aircraft are able to reduce the detection range to such an extent that they can either fly through the now larger gaps or through the “bubbles” created by radar and air defence coverage, or get closer enough to the source trying to detect the aircraft and then, ideally, eliminate the source.
A Game of Cat-and-Mouse
In the end, this is a cat-and-mouse game and aircraft maybe losing that because even stealth aircraft have Achilles` heels. Noise, heat, visual signature, various electromagnetic emissions (from V/UHF, datalinks, jammers, IFF-interrogation, TACAN etc.) and even certain angles or aircraft configuration allow chances of detection. Moreover, modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and even airborne radars are looking at new slices of the electronic spectrum to use frequencies that render current stealth designs less(er) effective or even defunct which means that the airborne cat-and-mouse game will go on. However, while we have seen that the major air powers each develop their own versions of stealth aircraft, perhaps the greatest advances have been made in the development of detection and interception technologies. So in the medium term, aircraft may lose this “arms race”, not least because they cannot carry tonnes of generators and antennas.
The increased performance of sensor computing power results in exposing a wider spectrum (visual, infrared and noise), which will further increase the vulnerability of cloaking aircraft in the coming years. However, overloading a defence system or creating a complex or ambiguous image can provide valuable time to reduce detection or at least response time. Every effort is made to create maximum confusion – the more unpredictable the better.
It is important to remember that today camouflage aircraft account for only a fraction of even the most modern and prosperous air forces. First and foremost, it is still the other tools and tactics available to flight crews in today’s combat space that are at stake. The rules of this “game” are quite simple and a combination of physics and technology. It all boils down to three “basic” techniques: 1) Stay out of detection, 2) Blind hostile target acquisition, or 3) Deceive them to search elsewhere.
Staying outside hostile detection range or at least reducing it is what stealth characteristics are aiming to achieve. By reducing detection range, you can actually decrease standoff and, in extremis, penetrate an enemy’s defence system. Knowing where the enemy`s GBAD systems (Ground based air-defence) are located is a vital prerequisite for staying out of his detection range. Thus long-term as well as long-range surveillance is suggested, aiming to gather their locations and electronic signatures in libraries. Even more critical are missile flyout and engagement parameters – respectively, the weapon’s legs and the practical envelope at which it can shoot down a target before it loses kinetic energy. These have in reality been much lower than the detection ranges. But modern systems are increasingly able to shoot over the horizon which is forcing strategic assets and force multipliers such as surveillance platforms, tankers or transports to back further away from the front lines.
Technologically, self-protective noise jamming is another simple technology which aims to deny or at least disrupt the detection of an aircraft. If these jammers are well tailored to known threats or powerful enough, they can generate so much electronic noise within an operating system’s hostile devices that their operators have to detune them to drastically reduce detection areas or even shut them down. However, this technique has some drawbacks, as it requires considerable power for an air platform to overcome a more powerful ground-based system with higher generation capacity. But it can also act as a “beacon” for enemy sensors to home-in on your jamming, because in the end it is also a signal. Finally, it must be able to match the operating frequency of the targeted hardware, while today’s GBAD systems are increasingly capable of jumping the frequency incredibly fast, requiring an equally agile interfering signal or jamming of a wide frequency band, which in turn requires considerable power. The same is true for various and sometimes bulky and expensive self-protection equipment, to have a last-line of self-defence once a missile is approaching.
This is why the final technique is one of deception and confusion rather than blinding which requires electronic signals that can decoy, distract or divert detection methods. They have become more prevalent in modern systems and can include the spoofy use of standoff, deployable and towed decoys. This is where we have to mention the art of cunning. There is an old fighter pilot saying that “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying”, and nowhere is this truer than in tactics employed to avoid detection. SAM operators, whether in a large battery or as a single MANPAD-shooter, are trained to spot patterns or assume certain behaviours which is why it is important to avoid predictable habits. By the way, the recent hype about drone swarms hints toward using these expendable platforms to divert attention from more valuable platforms.
In August 2019, a USAF statement titled ‘Environmental Impact Statement’ and issued to various Air National Guard facilities that would have Lockheed-Martin’s 5th gen. F-35A based, revealed a recent development. The statement is on the potential release/handling of countermeasures during operations, such as infrared decoy flares and chaff. So far, chaff have been absent from the stealthy F-35’s defensive suite of expendable countermeasures like flares and towed decoys, which suggests that it was indeed a capability the F-35 lacked and might not have needed, given its stealthy design. The statement says that “the ARM-210 chaff proposed for use by the F-35A is currently undergoing operational testing. It is expected to be available for use in 2020.” So far it remains unclear whether this applies to USMC’s F-35B or USN F-35C variants as well, or any of the A- and –B’s in service with foreign air forces. In 2014, the world’s largest chaff-manufacturer ESTERLINE first mentioned chaff cartridges made by its subsidary ARMTEC for the F-35 and the F-22. And in 2018, a briefing by USN VA Mathias Winter, then head of F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO), included a reference to “advanced chaff” as part of the still-in-development and years away Block-4 upgrades for the LIGHTNING II. Obviously, since the implementation of the JSF a quarter of a century ago, there must have been a change in threat perceptions in recent years, which lead to a weakly observable and thus radar-sensitive “immune” aircraft being equipped with radar-inhibiting chaff elements. It looks as if stealth is no longer a guarantee for the survival of such low-observable platforms in combat – if it ever was. But airframe-inherent stealth always was the promise’ that justified such aircraft’s subsequent design limitations in terms of speed, range and weapon payload. So, with the combat value which justifies these restrictions continuing to decrease, one might wonder whether the F-22 or F-35, but also Su-57 or J-20, are not just another fighter, only at a hefty price and with prohibitive operating costs.
Once a radar or another location device has successfully achieved a firing solution for SAMs, a missile usually is on its way towards our aircraft. Now, other and faster self-protective measures are needed. When missile warners – mostly based on IR- or ultraviolett sensors that detect the missiles hot exhaust plume – alert the crew via their tactical threat display and/or acoustic signals, active countermeasures are in dire need. In addition to the usual IR flares, the idea of “offensively” fighting the seeker of the incoming missile with a laser in order to distract or disturb it has become reality in recent years but only on large multi-engine transports, special-mission aircraft, and helicopters; the swivelling little “turrets” are still too large and drag-prone to be integrated in supersonic fighter platforms. This, however, might change in the long run; artist impressions of 6th gen. studies on “Future Combat Air Systems” by manufacturers like Raytheon, BAE Systems or AIRBUS/DASSAULT show red or green laser beams smouldering incoming missiles. It is unclear, however, where the suddenly available high-power output burst should come from.
Therefore, new sets of DIRCM (Directed Infrared Countermeasures) are the current cutting edge in aircraft self-protection. Practically, all such systems are part of a Defensive Aids System (DAS) which unites capabilities in threat warning, self-protection, countermeasures dispensing and in DIRCM itself. At the heart of the system, the DAS-Controller is able to assess multiple threats to the aircraft and prioritise the appropriate response using the Countermeasure Dispensing System (CMDS) and the laser/microwave firing DIRCM turret. Placed in blisters at the front and rear, IR and UV sensors are constantly on the lookout for missile and gunfire threats, providing long range, rapid and accurately-located alerts when they occur. The DIRCM is mostly present in a dual head drum, providing 360° protection and the ability to defeat multiple threats simultaneously, by accurately directing a jamming laser onto the missile’s seeker, confusing its guidance system and steering the missile away. Such an integrated and optimised threat warning/threat defeat chain thwarts off sequential incoming missiles quickly and effectively. Not much is known about the operational experience with such self-protection suites, but the principle obviously works.
Among the leading manufacturers of such sensor-suites is Italy’s LEONARDO. In partnership with THALES they are providing the MIYSIS system, allegedly an advanced DAS which protects the aircraft against latest-generation heat seeking IR missiles. MIYSIS consists of a THALES ELIX-IR threat warner, a LEONARDO DAS controller, the MIYSIS DIRCM as the centrepiece and THALES‘ VICON Countermeasures Dispenser. The system draws on experience gained in the development of the 2007 ECLIPSE technology, which has been tested against more than 100 missiles on international ranges with a 100% success rate and was trialled as part of the UK’s CDAS (Common Defensive Aids System) demonstrator. It focusses on five key requirements: Protection of the full range of rotary, turbo-prop/fixed wing and jet-transport platforms against advanced missile threats with a single design solution, a two-head configuration for spherical protection, a fully exportable product and – so they claim – the smallest, lightest and least power-hungry multi-head DIRCM system. At the recent DSEI show in London, MIYSIS won its first integration contract. The UK MoD ordered it for self-protection for the RAF‘s SHADOW ISTAR fleet, based on the eight KING AIR 350CER operated by 14 Sqn out of RAF Waddington. Because of its ISR role, they may be required to also fly through hostile airspace. The single source selection by the RAF follows the recent SALT-III international trials hosted by the FMV (Swedish Defence Materiel Administration) in Sweden. There, the integrated MIYSIS/ELIX-IR combo, using a jamming waveform developed by the UK MOD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, defeated IR missiles in live fire exercises. IOC (Initial Operating Capability) at 14 Sqn is targeted for early 2021.
At the same occasion, LEONARDO reveiled that in Italy, it’s Multiple Aperture InfraRed (MAIR) missile warning system made its first test flight in July off the Ligurian coast between La Spezia and Genoa on a testbed helicopter. The location was chosen because of the climatic conditions of warm air meeting the Alps, a rugged coastline, highways and plumes from industrial chimneys, which can give a similar signature to missile launches against a skyline. Further flight tests are to take place to test the system’s full range of capabilities. The company is also using a fixed-wing aircraft, to complete its qualification campaign ahead of a potential production launch in the second half of 2020. On the fixed-wing segment, one is targeting the military transport in the first instance and may expand to civil aviation sectors like air-cargo in the future. MAIR uses five interconnected optical heads to cover 360°×270° coverage, with a sixth sensor able to provide full spherical coverage against missile threats. Self-protection for UAVs is also under consideration which might become a lucrative market in the future, with unmanned systems getting more expensive and deployed to contested airspace.
Israel is another prominent player in this segment. Because the country fought several air-wars against its Arab neighbours during which it lost more than 100 IAF-jets mostly to Arab GBAD-assets in 1973, Israel‘s defence & electronics industry had to develop a much more swift and practical approach than other countries. For many years, ELBIT has been the biggest player in this segment. In 2019, it celebrated two important milestones in Europe. In June, it was announced that NATO (represented by the Dutch MoD) and AIRBUS have integrated and tested ELBIT‘s J-MUSIC (J-Multi-Spectral Infrared Countermeasure) DIRCM self-protection system into an A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft of the NATO Multinational MRTT Fleet (MMF). The Haifa-based company said that its engineers had supported three days of integration flight tests led by Airbus at the end of May from Madrid-Getafe, monitored by NATO‘s Support and Procurement Agency (NSPA) and OCCAR (Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation). The tests demonstrated the functionality of J-MUSIC, which defeated multiple simulated head-on, tail-on, and side-on threats from various ranges and against an A330 MRTT conducting a series of flight manoeuvres at different altitudes. The first two MRTTs with J-MUSIC are scheduled to be delivered in 2020, replacing the RNLAF‘s two KDC-10 tanker/transports. The remaining six aircraft are due to be delivered to Eindhoven and Cologne-Wahn in 2021–24.
Latest Self-Protection Suite for Luftwaffe A400Ms
In June 2019, ELBIT also received a US$73M contract from DIEHL-Defence, to provide its J-MUSIC directed infrared (IR) countermeasure (DIRCM) systems to protect the German Air Force’s 24 to 32 (out of 53) A400M transports. The contract includes an initial batch of 12 J-MUSIC turrets along with integration work in cooperation with DIEHL and AIRBUS. Each aircraft set involves the installation of three “turrets” – one under the fuselage and one on either side of the aft fuselage – to ensure maximum defence against hostile SAM-systems. All taken together, however, the current order could therefore only equip an initial four A400Ms with J-MUSIC.
AIRBUS and HENSOLDT concluded a longterm framework agreement for developing a European self-protection system for European platforms to cover the supply of a missile protection capability for AIRBUS military helicopters. Signed in late 2018, the agreement covers an initial 10-year period during which orders can be placed for the Airborne Missile Protection System (AMPS). A first order under the framework will result in 20 systems being delivered for the H145M in 2020. This comes as no surprise since the initial development of AMPS was carried out using the H145, and the first such rotorcraft produced were delivered with the protection system. The agreement also covers orders for integrating the system on the H225M and H135M variants, both of which have already deployed AMPS, which reduces or even entirely eliminates one-off costs. While AIRBUS said that the protection system is not exclusive to rotorcraft and customers can opt for other systems if they wish, HENSOLDT provides two standard versions of AMPS and customers/operators can choose their required modules and sensors based on the particular application. Modules include the Missile Launch Detection System (MILDS Block-2) and the Advanced Control and Display Unit in the cockpits.
The Spanish INDRA Group is one example where plans have already been executed and implemented; INDRA`s electronics division – also involved in the EF-2000 and EURODASS TYPHOON self-protection programme – has developed INSHIELD, a system tailored for protecting aircraft from IR-guided missiles fired by MANPADs. In 2018, INSHIELD has undergone NATO trials, installed on a Spanish Army CH-47 CHINOOK helicopter at the WTD 91 test centre in Meppen, Germany. Co-funded by the Spanish MoD, the dual-use system for both military and civil aircraft is ready for service. Meanwhile, the company is working on a DIRCM variant so that INSHIELD can be installed in the nine Spanish-AF A400M tanker/transports.
Precious Rulers and Leaders
Two examples of recent investments into aircraft self-protection suites to provide safety for VIPs and VVIPs are India and Qatar. Earlier this year, the US State Department approved the sale of two Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) self-protection suites (SPS) to India for roughly US$190M. According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), India requested two SPS consisting of a Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ 24(V)N LAIRCM, a Harris ALQ-211(V)8 Advanced Integrated Defensive Electronic Warfare Suite (AIDEWS), and a BAE Systems AN/ALE-47 Counter-Measures Dispensing System (CMDS), to protect two Boeing 777 head-of-state aircraft, with Boeing the prime contractor. Indicating how complex such suites usually are, the volume has to include 12 GUARDIAN Laser Transmitter Assemblies AN/AAQ-24 (V)N, with six installed and six spares. It would also include eight LAIRCM system processor replacements (LSPR) AN/AAQ-24 (V)N, with two installed and six spares, and also 23 missile warning sensors (MWS), with 12 installed and 11 spares.
As a similar cautionary measure for the safety of the rulers and their families, the Government of Qatar has requested the purchase of two such AN/AAQ-24(V)N Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasures (LAIRCM) systems from Northrop Grumman to protect two 747-800 Head-of-State aircraft. This planned sale will also include the 12 GUARDIAN Laser Turret Assemblies (GLTA) and 23 Missile Warning Sensors (MWS) as well as other related equipment and the engineering, engineering and logistics support of the US government and contractors. And here we also know the cost of what such sets are traded for: The price is estimated at US$86M.
Georg Mader is a defence correspondent and freelance aerospace journalist based in Vienna, Austria, and a regular contributor to ESD.