The U.S. Army is funding a program called Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM, or “kirkem”) to provide better defenses for its helicopters against heat-seeking missiles. The basic idea is to use a compact, low-power laser to jam the sensor in hostile missiles so they lose contact with the helicopter being targeted. The Army has an urgent need for such a system because portable heat-seeking missiles are proliferating in trouble spots around the world, however industry has had difficulty devising an affordable design that would not overburden helicopters.
Competition for CIRCM is fierce, with several industry teams vying for what looks to be one of the few new starts the service will pursue in a bleak budgetary environment. Faced with this tough competitive landscape — which includes both of the current industry leaders in airborne laser countermeasures — ITT Defense has developed an innovative solution to Army needs that leverages the company’s longstanding expertise in systems engineering.
Systems engineering is a discipline that analyzes every facet of a program’s life cycle in an integrated fashion to make optimum design tradeoffs. That sounds obvious enough, but companies wedded to particular solutions and suppliers often take a narrower approach aimed at leveraging their existing franchises, and thus fail to generate the best options. ITT has avoided that kind of bias, and instead looked for the best ideas and talent to meet CIRCM requirements wherever they were available.
The result really is a breakthrough, because in addition to efficiently accomplishing the system’s primary mission — defeating enemy missiles — the ITT design offers unexpected additional benefits. First, the system can be used to provide secure communications at higher data rates and longer distances than are typically available to helicopter crews. Second, the ITT design can be integrated with other onboard defensive systems so its laser is directed to deterring additional enemy fire. Third, the system can be utilized as a laser rangefinder that assists pilots in safely landing helicopters when visibility is limited.
That is a lot more than the Army was asking for, and underscores the intrinsic versatility of laser technology when exploited using systems engineering principles. The ITT approach also shows how a company not committed to a certain type of solution can offer functionality and flexibility beyond the confines of a particular mission area or design community. Perhaps this explains why ITT wins most of the airborne countermeasures contracts it goes after. In the case of CIRCM, it has developed an affordable solution that looks tough to beat, with significant additional benefits to boot.
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