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Northrop Ends Missile-Thwarting System Test On Civilian Planes

By | March 31, 2008

      Counter-Manpads Asset Seen Able To Protect Each Passenger For $1 — Price Of Pop And Peanuts

      Northrop Hopes Airlines Install Guardian System On Planes For Far Less Than $4 Billion Total Outlay

      LINTHICUM, Md. — Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] wrapped up a multi-year demonstration program in which it installed a laser system on airliners to defeat shoulder-mounted man-portable weapons that terrorists might fire at the civilian planes.

      The end of the Northrop portion of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)-funded Phase III program ($105 million for Northrop, and a like amount for rival BAE Systems product, JetEye) came as technicians unbolted a Northrop Guardian counter-Manpads system from the underbelly of a FedEx cargo plane, an MD-10 (made by McDonnell Douglas, a unit of The Boeing Co. [BA]). This was one of 11 FedEx MD-10s modified for the program.

      As civilian airliners roared aloft from an adjacent runway at Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport, Northrop officials explained to defense journalists that they would hope the U.S. civilian airline industry will recognize that terrorists see such airliners as prime targets.

      The hope is that airlines will order the Northrop Grumman Guardian counter-Manpads system, which the company estimates could be purchased, installed on planes, operated for a 20-year lifespan, and disposed of at a total cost of $1 per passenger, or less than $1 million per plane. That $1 per passenger outlay, according to Northrop, is about what it costs an airline to give one passenger a soft drink and mini-bag of peanuts.

      That would amount to at most a total $4 billion to outfit the entire U.S. civilian airliner fleet, far less than figures such as $30 billion quoted by some critics of placing counter-Manpads systems on each plane. Some airlines have protested that they can’t afford to buy the system and mount it on each airliner, because airlines already are strapped for cash thanks to soaring fuel prices.

      But "if these airlines said, ‘We’re interested in doing this,’ we would work out an economic model that would make it affordable for them," one briefer explained.

      And actually, according to Northrop, the total cost would be less than $4 billion, because many airliners at any point in time are in hangars for maintenance work. The Guardian system, contained in a seven-foot-long pod that fits on the underside of a plane, can be switched from one plane to another, so 4,000 units wouldn’t be required. The Guardian system can be installed during a routine aircraft maintenance overhaul.

      Also, the Guardian pod mounted on the underside of the fuselage adds very little drag, less than 1 percent, so Guardian doesn’t cause any huge increase in airline fuel costs, briefers said. Fuel burn is about the same in a Guardian-equipped aircraft, compared to a plane without the system. And the pod permits quick transfers of the Guardian protection from one airliner to the next.

      An alternative approach would place laser counter-Manpads systems on the ground at each airport. Raytheon Co. [RTN] makes such a system, Vigilant Eagle. DHS in 2006 gave Raytheon a $4.1 million contract to test its system, with a potential to raise that by another $1.2 million. Raytheon says its system could be used at 25 of the largest airports for $2 billion total.

      But Jack Pledger, director of marketing and business development with Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems defensive systems division, said such a ground-based unit must guard an area of about 300 square miles for each runway at an airport.

      In contrast, the Guardian system, mounted on each aircraft, is always with the plane to provide protection everywhere, not just at airports. Further, according to Northrop, Manpads can be used against airliners at any time they are within 10,000 to 15,000 feet altitude, even when there is no airport anywhere nearby. That can mean planes are vulnerable when they are as far as 75 miles from the airport. And the terrorist can fire the missile when he is two to three miles from the aircraft.

      James F. Pitts, Northrop corporate vice president and president of Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems, said the Guardian system, with its missile-killing laser, is a variant of a military aircraft protection system with years of service.

      The military version is installed on some 400 military aircraft, and Guardian benefits from more than $1 billion invested in the military version, Pitts said.

      Also, Guardian is FAA certified for use on civilian passenger and cargo aircraft.

      The Guardian unit weighs only 500 pounds, the equivalent of two passengers and their baggage, and uses only 1,800 watts of electric power, about the same as a hair dryer, according to the briefers.

      As far as maintenance time, removing the pod from the FedEx plane took a total of only about 30 minutes, with two FedEx guys and a couple of wrenches winching the pod down to the ground in about seven minutes.

      Pledger said some 27 terrorist organizations possess Manpads.

      During the multi-year program testing Guardian on aircraft such as the FedEx plane, Pledger said Guardian systems flew thousands of hours.

      But now, he said, "the program is coming to a conclusion," adding that "the future is unknown."

      One possibility, Pitts said, is that the Department of Defense (DOD) might be asked to fund placement of Guardian units on civilian aircraft that that DOD leases for logistics, personnel transport and other missions.

      Such planes include airliners such as the Boeing 737 and 747 jumbo jet, and the Airbus A330, he said, with some 800 aircraft involved in the program.

      Meanwhile, DHS will submit a final report to Congress in coming months on how Guardian and JetEye performed during the multi-year test with them installed on civilian aircraft.

      The cost of one large airliner can exceed $100 million, and Pitts noted that means preventing a missile from striking a plane makes sense in various ways, including economic sense.

      A Guardian pod unit can protect a modest-sized airliner or cargo plane, but the same system also can protect giant aircraft such as the Boeing 747-400.

      Each pod has four windows, with a sensor peering out of each window to watch for missiles. If one is spotted, a gimbal-mounted turret swivels around to find the missile, locking onto it and confirming that it is a threat. Then the pod directs a laser beam at the enemy weapon, hitting its heat-seeking homing sensor, and deflecting it away from the plane.

      While no terrorists attacked the FedEx plane during the test period, Pledger said a British C-17 aircraft was protected three times from enemy missiles. "That’s how we know the system works," he said.

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