In the latest indication that the U.S. defense electronics sector is overcrowded with players, five different teams are submitting proposals to the U.S. Army for a new system that can jam hostile missiles aimed at its helicopters. The system, called Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM or “kirk-em”), will use laser energy to overload the seekers on attacking missiles so that they cannot lock onto emissions from helicopters and other aircraft, enabling the craft to escape danger.
If that were all CIRCM needed to do there might be even more entrants in the competition, but it also must connect seamlessly with other defensive equipment already installed on the service’s thousands of helicopters, and cope with sophisticated new threats as enemy capabilities evolve. In addition, CIRCM may need to be adaptable to the designs of rotorcraft and planes operated by other services, such as Navy Seahawk helicopters. And oh, by the way, the system needs to be affordable, otherwise the whole program could be canceled the same way so many other Army programs have been killed over the last ten years.
This is a tall order. Some of the teams submitting proposals by the April 15 deadline probably can’t fill it, but they won’t admit that. What they’ll do instead is claim that by using “off-the-shelf” components or importing technology from other mission areas, they can meet military needs at a lower cost than companies that have been developing airborne infrared countermeasure systems for decades. If the Army is credulous enough to listen, it could get stuck with something that can’t be integrated in a timely fashion or can’t be upgraded to cope with emergent threats. And then another billion-dollar program will face cancellation.
The Navy is facing a similar dilemma in its capacity as lead service for the Next Generation Jammer, a replacement of airborne electronic-warfare pods that counter enemy radars and communication devices. Four teams are competing for that program, and some of them have decidedly more relevant experience than others. It’s not that new players can’t come up with interesting ideas, but the likelihood they can actually integrate and support their idea isn’t very high, because there are all sorts of nuances to electronic countermeasures that aren’t apparent to recent arrivals. If you want to see how best intentions can go awry in the arcane business of developing new military technology, check out the fate of the Future Imagery Architecture, where challenger Boeing sought to underbid and over-promise a 40-year incumbent in the spy satellite business. Big money, as in billions of dollars, was squandered.
Obviously, the Army would like to avoid that fate in the Common Infrared Countermeasures program. The safest way to get a successful outcome is to scrutinize the track records of the offerors and then evaluate their proposals in that light. In other words, if a company has not invested in relevant capabilities and has not participated in relevant programs in the past, then any promises it makes about what it can do in the future should be viewed skeptically. If a price-tag or a proposal sounds too good to be true, then it probably is a programmatic disaster waiting to happen. Unlike in politics, this is one business where experience really matters.
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