ROME — As demand rises to protect helicopters from the growing threat of man-portable missiles, competition is increasing between providers of small, easily exportable counter measures, complete with some tough talking between competitors.
After an executive from Israel’s Elbit suggested the firm’s Directional Infrared Countermeasure system (DIRCM), called Mini-Music, put it “years ahead” of work being undertaken by Selex ES, a Selex official said the firm’s new product, Miysis, is “superior” to its Israeli rival.
The battle comes as Northrop Grumman, which has long supplied the US with its DIRCM products, appears to have retreated from a decision to get into the International Traffic in Arms Regulations-free market.
Designed to fire a laser from a turret at an incoming missile to disturb its infrared homing optics, DIRCMs are now in demand to defend smaller aircraft, helicopters and even UAVs — as opposed to just large aircraft — as the number of man-portable missiles grows.
Elbit got the show underway at the Paris Air Show this summer when it launched its 19-kilogram Mini-Music, designed to protect Apache, NH90 and Black Hawk helicopters with fiber laser technology. It’s smaller than other DIRCMs in the Music range, which are used on Israeli civil aircraft.
Claiming the Mini-Music had “no competition,” an official at the show said Selex, which is a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica, was five to six years behind Elbit in the field.
Speaking on Sept. 11 from the DSEi show in London, a Selex official took a different view.
“We believe we have a superior product, we are smaller and lighter,” said Bob Mason, vice president of sales for radar and advanced targeting for Selex ES.
Mason said Selex’s Miysis used two transmitter heads on the aircraft hull to track the threat and fire the laser to disrupt the missile’s infrared system. An electronics interface unit informs the transmitters which of the two needs to be tracking the threat.
He called the twin-headed solution “vital,” adding “a single head just won’t give the protection desired by the end users.”
The comparison of weight with the 19-kilogram Mini-Music pod was on a “like for like” basis, Mason added, suggesting each of the two Miysis pods would weigh less than the Mini-Music.
“Miysis systems can be installed in aircraft pods — able to be switched around different platforms — or permanently installed in the airframe,” he said.
The system will be offered in a fixed size. “On bigger platforms you might require more than two transmitters, while a UAV might only require one,” he said.
The first order is expected in months, he added.
“The market is huge, a total of 4-5,000 units in 10 years, and we would hope to capture 500 to 1,000 sales,” he said.
Elbit and Selex are joined in the market by Spain’s Indra. The firm started developing its Manta DIRCM 2004 with Rosoboronexport for VIP jets and transport aircraft using a gas-based chemical laser, but is now also working on a compact variant using solid-state laser technology.
“This Manta variant is targeted at those small platforms where the physical dimensions of original Manta imposes severe constraints on the installation,” a spokesman said. “The first prototype is expected to be ready for tests during 2014,” he added.
Absent from the foray into the small, export DIRCM market is Northrop Grumman, which has supplied hundreds of laser DIRCM products over the past decade to nations including the US, UK and Australia, with Selex providing components as a partner.
Northrop Grumman announced in 2011 its plans to develop an ITAR-free DIRCM product with Selex in order to enter the export market. In November 2011, it said it was aiming for a “widely exportable” DIRCM for helicopters and an official said components could be produced commercially outside the US.
But two years on, Selex is going it alone with Miysis. Asked about the US firm’s apparent change of heart, a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman said, “Northrop Grumman will provide ITAR-compliant solutions.”
“Northrop Grumman and the US government work closely together in terms of providing products and systems to our allies,” she added. “Regardless of partnerships, Northrop Grumman continues to follow all guidelines and requirements associated with export of systems containing US technology.”
Northrop Grumman and Selex have, however, teamed on the US Army’s Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM) contest to find a smaller countermeasure system that can be mounted on US Army helicopters like the Black Hawk.
“We jointly decided we needed an exportable version and jointly agreed that Northrop Grumman would focus on CIRCM and we would focus both on CIRCM and a next-generation exportable system,” said Selex’s Mason.
“That doesn’t rule out participation by Northrop Grumman,” he added. “But the trick would be working out how to get the firm involved without altering the business case for exportability. Right now they are happy for us to continue,” he said.
“Miysis has been developed with our funding, with constant firewalling to ensure there was no transfer of technology from the Northrop Grumman program,” he said.
Selex’s Eclipse Pointer Tracker has been used on a CIRCM technology demonstrator provided by the partners to go up against BAE’s offering in trials due to run through 2014. “An engineering and manufacturing development phase will follow,” Mason said. “It is currently unclear whether a down-select to one prime contractor will be made by then, or if the US Army will involve both contenders in that phase.”
The Northrop Grumman spokeswoman said the firm’s CIRCM proposal could use one or more transmitters and a quantum cascade laser (QCL). “It is the first time we are aware a QCL laser has been used in a DIRCM application,” she said.
Asked if Northrop Grumman’s CIRCM product might one day be exported, the spokeswoman said, “This program has been identified as a US defense exportability features program, which means that it will be made available for export following applicable export guidelines for international sales.”