The Buzz

The New Way Helicopters 'Know' When Missiles Are Coming—And Shoot Them Down

BAE Systems is working to address an Army need by testing an emerging helicopter protection technology able to detect, distinguish and destroy approaching enemy fire in a more effective and integrated fashion than existing systems can, industry developers explained.

As a way to respond to and anticipate evolving Army requirements, BAE is engineering and testing a 3-Dimensional Advanced Warning System, or 3DAWS, which integrates ultraviolet sensor technology from the Common Missile Warning System, or CMWS, with an RF-Tracker to discern whether an approaching object is, in fact, an enemy threat, BAE Developers said. CMWS sends out a flare to divert enemy fire off course, and the RF-Tracker uses radio frequency to precisely assess the nature of a particular threat. 

“This detects threats in a first-encounter scenario. We want our missile warning system to see everything that can possibly be a threat to them - we want to confirm that something is a threat before it can harm the aircraft,” Cheryl Paradis, Director of Threat Management Solutions, BAE Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

Using a passive missile warning system and semi-active radar from a helicopter as an adjunct to CMWS, 3DAWS aims to provide identification, tracking and cueing for helicopters in high-threat areas.

Traveling at the speed of light, electromagnetic radar signals, or “pings,” are sent forward to bounce off an approaching enemy object; the return signal is then analyzed as a way to determine the shape, size, distance and speed of an approaching threat. Since the speed of light is a known entity -- and the time of travel of the signals is also quantifiable -- a computer algorithm is then able to quickly determine the distance of an object. The semi-active radar used by 3DAWS’ 3D-Tracker uses this technology to assess the precise nature and distance of enemy fire as part of an effort to give helicopter crews timely information about incoming attacks.

For instance, the new system seeks to identify and help intercept or destroy high-threat attacks such as enemy RPGs, MANPADS -- or heat-seeking shoulder-fired weapons – and various kinds of rockets and missiles. Pentagon threat-assessment analysts have consistently expressed concern about the expanding proliferation and improving targeting technology of shoulder-fired weapons. 

Accordingly, the rapid pace of emerging threats to helicopters is requiring aircraft to engineer more advanced countermeasures; heat seeking missiles, longer-range precision attack weapons and enemy radar systems make helicopters much more vulnerable than they have been in recent years. Increasing time needed for a decision cycle, by knowing the nature of approaching fire more precisely at greater ranges, vastly increases a helicopter crew's ability to make adjustments, respond with offensive fire and implement the appropriate protective countermeasure. 

In order to minimize vulnerability to enemy RPG fire, Army helicopters often fly lower to the ground as a way to decrease the possible angle of attack. Varying speed and route selection is another method of limiting risk. Increased speed, in and of itself, is a substantial survivability-enhancing component. This is one reason the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program seeks to construct a compound-helicopter technology able to reach unprecedented airplane-like speed and range, all while maintaining the helicopter-specific ability to hover. The Army has detailed a range of requirements for its Future Vertical Lift program, an effort aimed at fielding a next-generation aircraft by the 2030s. 

As a result, knowing the speed, range and characteristics of an approaching threat, from further distances, makes 3DAWS a significant option for Army developers.

The goal is for 3DAWS to provide a seamless hand-off to a soft or hard-kill countermeasure as appropriate to the threat, Paradis explained.

“We will have an ability to detect a threat that has never been encountered before – and then cue and dispense a number of countermeasures,” Paradis added.

Ultraviolet sensors on CMWS detect activity all the way around the aircraft looking for threat signatures. CMWS is now deployed on virtually all Army helicopters such as Black Hawks, Chinooks and Apaches.

“We have an upgrade to CMWS to add a two-color IR sensor and passively cued 3D tracker – a 3-Dimensional warning system finds the azimuth and elevation of the threat to determine how far away the threat is – and whether it is a threat or not,” Paradis explained.

The Army has long been interested in developing multifaceted helicopter survivability systems using advanced computer algorithms to condense multiple applications into a single, lighter-weight and more effective suite of countermeasures connected by a common processor.

“CMWS cues the tracker to verify whether the object or approaching track is a threat or not. 3DAWS is these two components working hand-in-hand together,” Paradis said.

For years now, the Army has been working on computer algorithms able to combine input from a range of different aircraft technologies including CMWS and various now-in-development technologies, such as the Hostile Fire Detection System and the Common Infrared Countermeasure system, or CIRCM.

“We are building this internally until the Army is ready to put a solution on the table - so we can be ready,” said Chris Austin, Program Director for Threat Management Solutions, BAE Systems.

Army developers have said a combined helicopter survivability system, using a common display, would weigh less than multiple systems and reduce aircraft weight. Such a system would also consume less power on the aircraft.