- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 20, 2004

The Army is sticking by a decision to develop its own countermissile system to protect helicopters from the kind of attacks being committed by Iraqi guerrillas, instead of buying an off-the-shelf model now on special-operations aircraft and on Air Force One.

The debate has heated up inside the Army in the aftermath of 10 copters being shot down in Iraq by die-hard Saddam Hussein loyalists. In some attacks, the insurgents used heat-seeking portable missiles that existing, less-advanced countermeasures failed to stop.

The attacks have claimed the lives of 49 soldiers.

The rash of shoot-downs has prompted some aviators and Army officials to say privately that the service should begin buying an available system called the Directional Infrared Counter Measure (DIRCM).

DIRCM is now operational on a number of Air Force aircraft, including C-130 gunships and transports in U.S. Special Operations Command. It is also on Air Force One and some C-17 planes that regularly fly into Baghdad.

The C-17 that carried Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld into the city after the war sprouts a DIRCM defensive pod that emits an antimissile laser. Northrop Grumman Corp. builds the DIRCM, which became operational in the late 1990s.

The Army, however, chose a different protection system.

Last November — at which point three Army helicopters had been shot down since President Bush declared an end to major hostilities on May 1 — the Army faced a final procurement decision. It could buy the DIRCM or stick with its original choice — the advanced threat infrared countermeasures/common missile warning system (ATIRCM/CMWS).

The Army decided to stand pat, meaning the soonest Army aviators will begin getting the full benefits of the new system is late 2005.

Army officials, who talked on the condition of anonymity, defended the decision on several points.

They said both systems would take about the same time to install on the Army’s entire fleet of 2,500 helicopters. They also said installing the off-the-shelf DIRCM system would cost $3 million per aircraft, about 50 percent more than the other system. And they said DIRCM does not feature chaff and flares that act as decoys to throw the missiles off course.

Backers of DIRCM, who likewise declined to be identified, dispute the Army schedule estimate. They said that when the Air Force decided to buy it for its MH-53 special-operations copter, Northrop Grumman installed the first one in 62 days.

They also say the company’s proposed cost is less than $3 million. They said DIRCM does not need a flare dispenser because its laser can defeat all types of shoulder-fired missiles. However, the devices mean life or death to hundreds of military personnel targeted by Iraqi guerrillas.

Both systems have the same defensive function. They detect the launch of a hand-held missile to alert aviators and dispense a countermeasure. In DIRCM, it’s an infrared laser beam that interferes with the missile’s guidance system; the ATIRCM activates decoys and fires a laser.

After a CH-47 Chinook helicopter was downed by a Soviet-made SA-7 missile on Nov. 2, killing 16 American soldiers, Army acting Secretary Les Brownlee ordered a complete review of countermeasure systems, both planned and in use.

At the review’s end, the Army decided to accelerate ATIRCM development and production so the complete system can start being installed by late 2005.

Some of the 10 copters shot down in Iraq were struck by gunfire or rocket-propelled grenades, neither of which can be countered by either proposed defense system. But military sources say others were attacked by shoulder-fired rockets officially called Manpads, for man-portable air-defense systems.

The most prevalent in Iraq is the Soviet-designed SA-7. But military sources say two more-advanced Russian weapons, the SA-14 and SA-18, are also in Iraq. These missiles have the capability to lock onto different heat points on the aircraft, making it tougher for missile defenses to counter.

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