Protecting Army aircraft from missiles involves constant battle to counter adversaries
Ed Lopez for Picatinny Arsenal Public Affairs | January 11, 2021
Estimated reading time 10 minutes, 6 seconds.
In warfare, just as there is one side that develops codes and another side that seeks to break them, there is also one side that develops missiles to shoot down aircraft and another side that seeks to thwart such attacks.
Although technology may evolve over time, the same dynamics persist in the never-ending struggle to defeat or neutralize threats from an adversary.
“It’s really a chess game and it’s a tough battle,” said Clinton Plaza, a computer engineer who works at the Countermeasures and Flares Branch at Picatinny Arsenal. Plaza and his colleagues develop strategies and design expendables to protect Army aircraft by using decoys to thwart incoming enemy missiles.
Expendable countermeasures are a class of pyrotechnic and electronic warfare devices used to protect aircraft from guided surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles. They are single use and are dispensed from aircraft to provide decoy targets to the missiles and divert the missile safely away from the aircraft.
The Countermeasures and Flares Branch strives to increase aircraft survivability through the design, development and production support of countermeasures, such as decoys, chaff, and flares. The goal is to provide solutions to defeat legacy, emerging and future threats to Army, Joint Service, and Allied aviators.
The Branch operates under the Pyrotechnics Technology Division, which is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command, known as DEVCOM, Armaments Center. Plaza and his colleagues perform their duties at the Picatinny Effectiveness and New Countermeasure Evaluation Lab, or PENCE.
“Over the last 12 years or more, James Wejsa, the chief of the Pyrotechnics Technology Division, has pushed hard to bring in a modeling and simulation capability in house to better evaluate that products we produce and expedite the development cycle by assessing designs in a digital or a ‘hardware in the loop environment,’” Plaza said. Hardware in the loop refers to the use of actual threat hardware, or surrogate systems, that might be available as part of countermeasure development.
“We can take either digital representations of missiles, or use actual threat hardware, and evaluate digital representations of our countermeasures against those,” Plaza said. “It helps us to better design the countermeasures and get a better idea of what may work and what may not work throughout the development process and before we go into an operational test event.”
Before powerful computers became readily available, the main method for evaluating expendable countermeasures was to fly an aircraft, track it with actual missile hardware, deploy expendables and observe how the missile responded to the countermeasures deployed. This method is expensive, labor intensive, time-consuming, and does not allow for the agility needed to ensure the protection of Army aviators against the constantly evolving threats.
The countermeasures modeling and simulation lab has been in various stages of operation over the years. It has only recently become fully operational with significant facility renovations, including more workspace, and the addition of powerful computer systems to perform advanced threat analysis, modeling and simulation.
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Developing expendable countermeasures can vary greatly depending on the use and need. An Army aviation organization may approach the Countermeasures and Flares Branch and say a new threat has emerged and ask if the branch can offer a solution.
“We would gather all the information we could on that system, including hardware if we could, and try to put that information into our modeling and simulation environment,” Plaza said. “If acquiring hardware isn’t possible, we use the information we do have to build a completely digital model of the system. If we are unable to do that, then we would find or develop something that is close enough, a surrogate that we could use in its place. After we have our models and threat representation then we can work to develop a countermeasure technique to defeat that threat system.”
This manner of simulating engagements can help point to possible solutions. “Maybe we need a brighter flare, or maybe we need a bigger flare– something like that– in order to insert error into the ability of that threat to track our aircraft,” Plaza said.
Guided missile threats that first emerged during the 1960s and have evolved over time, help to illustrate the technical tug-of-war between aircraft developers, missile developers, and the aircraft survivability community.
A missile may be designed to seek out the aircraft heat signature to find and track its target, which would be countered by ejecting flares that are even hotter to divert the missile. Another type of missile might be designed to seek out a specific characteristic of an aircraft flying through the sky, so a countermeasure is developed to defeat a missile by mimicking that characteristic. At times, changing the way decoys, chaff and flares are ejected from an aircraft might be another countermeasure option.
“It’s been a constant battle since that time, in what can a missile developer do to counter us, and what we can do with our countermeasures to defeat that new advanced threat,” Plaza said.
If a potential solution requires a new chemical formulations or strategies, the Countermeasures and Flares Branch can reach out for assistance from another branch in the Pyrotechnics Division, the Pyrotechnics Research and Development Pilot Plant Branch.
“We go to them and say, ‘This is the type of effect we’re looking for. Can you do something like that, and if you can’t, how can we use multiple countermeasures to make the scene the threat sees look the same as what we’re seeing is successful in modeling and simulation?” Plaza said. “That could mean shooting multiple countermeasures, or one countermeasure that has a different chemistry. Those are the types of things that we will discuss. They have had to start from scratch in a couple of projects, but their amazing work enables us to better defeat these threats and to help Army, DOD, and allied aviation be more survivable.”
Plaza noted that the path to developing countermeasures can involve discussions and collaboration with a wide range of Army organizations, each with specific expertise that play a role in survivability for aircraft and crew. The Countermeasures and Flares Branch works closely with Program Manager Close Combat Systems, which is part of the Joint Program Executive Office Armaments and Ammunition at Picatinny Arsenal.
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The Branch also collaborates with Army and joint service organizations such as the Program Executive Office Aviation, Project Manager Aircraft Survivability Equipment, which is part of the Program Executive Office Intelligence, Electronic Warfare and Sensors, and the Center for Countermeasures, which is under the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Director, Operational Test and Evaluation.
But the collaboration doesn’t end there. The threat from surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles is a concern throughout the entire Department of Defense and allied nations.
“There’s a lot of people across the U.S. and friendly nations who work in this area, providing a large knowledge base and collaborative environment,” Plaza said. “Luckily, being on the forefront for the Army has enabled us to be able to assist and collaborate with our friends in the aircraft survivability community with some concepts and ideas that we have come up with, and they have done the same for us.”