ThNDR and Lightning: Northrop's ThNDR system is designed to protect the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from enemy missiles. (Northrop)
WASHINGTON — Northrop Grumman on Thursday unveiled a new anti-missile laser protection system designed for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in Washington.
The Threat Nullification Defensive Resource — ThNDR for short, to compliment the F-35’s “Lightning” designation — is a progression from Northrop’s directional infrared countermeasures (DIRCM) family of systems.
DIRCM works by sensing by intercepting an incoming missile with a laser that confuses the seeker head on the weapon, causing it to lose track of the aircraft. The system has been highly successful, with installation on over 50 different platforms, but had yet to be mounted on a fighter jet in large part due to the challenge of getting a system to work with the tight turns and high speeds that pilots would be required to make in a combat situation.
Although not yet part of the F-35 program, Northrop is confident the Pentagon wants to incorporate some form of missile-protection into its fifth-generation fighter.
“We know that requirement does exist and it is on its way,” said Jeffrey Palombo, Northrop’s sector vice president and general manager for the Land and Self-Protection Systems Division. In an attempt to get ahead of potential competition, the company self-funded the research and design of ThNDR.
ThNDR was designed to meet specific size limitations for the F-35. It will be nestled next to the distributed aperture system (DAS), also designed by Northrop, and tap into the cooling system already in the fighter. Each jet will get a pair of systems, one on the top of the plane and one on the bottom, to create 360-degree coverage against threats.
A major feature of the F-35 is its low-observable design, vital to its stealth capabilities. Anything sticking off the plane could threaten those stealth characteristics, so ThNDR will be installed inside the jet, with a window cut out to allow the lasers to operate.
The company expects the requirement for a missile defense system to be included in the Block 5 upgrade, in the 2017 time frame, and be available for all domestic and international customers. “There’s no reason at all that it can’t be retrofitted” into an already-produced F-35, Palombo said, although he declined to go into details on what that might look like.
The system still has a way to go before completion, with testing planned in Northrop’s laboratories before the end of the year. While no requirement has been issued, Carl Smith, vice president of Infrared Countermeasures, said the company is keeping in touch with the F-35 Joint Program Office.
“We go talk with them periodically,” Smith said. “We share what our progress is. There’s obviously dialogue with Lockheed Martin. We keep everybody abreast of where we are and what’s happening. “
While designed for the F-35, Palombo said the company expects other fighters, such as the F-15, to eventually include a requirement for a DIRCM system.
“It’s really a fast jet capability,” Palombo said. “Look at the fact there aren’t going to be many new starts for airplanes. We’re going to be flying F-22s, F-16s, F-15s for a very long time, and they’re going to have to be protected, as well.”
The system could be mounted into the bottom of the airplane, or reconfigured to fit into a self-contained pod that can be attached to the bottom of a jet. It would also have the option to be liquid or air-cooled.
“We believe [the F-35 is] probably the first actual requirement proposal that will be coming down the pike,” Palombo reiterated. “It is very likely there will be others, either in parallel with that or immediately following that.”
Northrop executives describe ThNDR as a “sixth-generation” system, and the company is keeping an eye on what a seventh-gen system might look like. Smith, at least, believes that would likely involve higher-powered lasers in the “tens of kilowatts of energy.”