Commercial and even military aircraft can no longer count on being able to fly the friendly skies. This is the lesson brought home by the downing of MH17 over Ukraine. These same air defenses have also brought down Ukrainian military jets including both ground attack aircraft similar to the U.S. A-10 and at least one high performance interceptor. ISIS has shot down a number of Iraqi helicopters over the past year. The proliferation of advanced air defenses to both state and non-state actors has made the skies over any conflict zone potentially dangerous for all aircraft.
The development of fifth-generation or stealthy aircraft is one response to the threat posed by advanced anti-aircraft defenses. This is one of the reasons why the United States invested in the B-2 bomber, F-22 and F-35 fighters. It is also a primary reason why more than a dozen of this country’s friends and allies are either part of the F-35 consortium or have already made commitments to acquire this aircraft. It is important to point out that other countries, notably Russia and China, are also investing in fifth-generation aircraft.
Electronic warfare (EW) or jamming enemy radar signals is another important way that military aircraft can counter the threat of advanced air defenses. The U.S. has led the way for decades in EW. The U.S. Navy provides EW support for the joint force with its fleet of EA-18G Growlers. The Department of Defense is responding to the increasing sophistication of the air defense threat by also investing in a Next Generation Jammer system that will be carried on the Growler and potentially other aircraft.
Both military and commercial aircraft will require advanced self-protection systems to defeat surface-to-air missiles. Western defense companies have developed suites of systems that can be deployed on military aircraft, helicopters and even large commercial aircraft. For example, BAE Systems, a leader in this field, has developed the Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures system and the Common Infrared Countermeasures system designed to defeat the sensors on man portable anti-aircraft missiles. It also has exploited this same technology to develop the JETEYE system intended to protect commercial aircraft from the same type of missiles. This company and others are investing in technologies for advanced radar countermeasure systems that would defeat longer-range radar-guided missiles.
Military aircraft of the future will use an array of tactics, techniques and systems to evade and defeat hostile air defense systems. Commercial aircraft have fewer options. Nevertheless, the risk to airliners is growing and efforts must be taken to provide them with protection against surface-to-air missile threats.
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