At next week's Paris Air Show, the U.S. military hopes to get a good look at the latest technology designed to protect low-flying aircraft against small arms and shoulder-fired missiles, a persistent threat to our helicopters throughout the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. Of particular interest are Common Infrared Countermeasures (CIRCM) under development by several prominent U.S. military contractors, including Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, ITT and Lockheed Martin.

CIRCM technology is expected to provide a more accurate, lighter-weight version of the Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures (ATIRCM) the military has been developing to defend its aircraft from being shot down by what it refers to as Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems (MANPADS). The U.S. Army wants to use CIRCM as part of an integrated aircraft defense system installed in its aircraft.

A previous version of ATIRCM—called DIRCM, for Directional Infrared Countermeasures—sought to disrupt guided-missile attacks using a multiband heat laser to disrupt a missile's guidance system and throw it off course. Pentagon and Army officials, however, determined last year that the DIRCM systems were too heavy for any helicopter except Boeing's CH-47 Chinook.

The most advanced MANPADS—which include a launcher, battery and missile packed into a launch tube resting on the operator's shoulder—can hit an aircraft at a range of up to 8 kilometers, according to a January report (pdf) by the Small Arms Survey, an independent research project at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. There are more than 500,000 MANPADS in the world today, many thousands thought to be on the black market for as little as a few hundred dollars (pdf) and therefore accessible to terrorists and other non-state actors, the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) reports. MANPADS stolen from former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's arms stockpiles were later purchased by the Coalition Provisional Authority for a $500 apiece before it was dissolved in 2004, according to FAS.

Helicopters and other aircraft fired upon by infrared (IR) heat-seeking, shoulder-mounted missiles use decoy flares that give off an IR signature similar to, or more intense than, the signature of the aircraft itself. This is designed to confuse the missile's guidance system, but newer MANPADS are better able to differentiate between flares and the aircraft, according to FAS.

The Army has issued a draft request for proposals for CIRCM, opening the competitive phase for a deal to create and install the missile jamming technology on thousands of helicopters and tilt rotor aircraft. The Army wants to choose a technology in late September, after which there will be a 21-month demonstration phase, says Mike Booen, vice president of Raytheon Advanced Security and Directed Energy Systems. The Navy will adopt whichever CIRCM technology the Army chooses, he adds.

Raytheon is hoping to outfit military aircraft with its version of CIRCM, which it has been developing since 2005 (see simulation video below). Raytheon's laser defense technology caused quite a stir last year when the company released a video depicting the Navy's Laser Weapon System (LaWS)—guided by Raytheon's Phalanx Close-In Weapon System sensors—engaging and destroying four UAV targets flying over water near the Navy's weapons and training facility on San Nicolas Island in California's Santa Barbara Channel, about 120 kilometers west of Los Angeles. Whereas that laser uses tens of thousands of watts to down missiles at long range, the CIRCM laser would use tens of watts to impair missile guidance systems.

Fellow defense contractors ITT, Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin are likewise pitching their CIRCM technology to the military. Northrop Grumman recently announced the development of a miniaturized CIRCM processor that identifies, tracks and defeats IR missiles launched against rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft. The company claims to have demonstrated this new aircraft self-protection system to the Naval Surface Warfare Center's Crane Division at the Northrop Grumman Rolling Meadows facility in Illinois.

Lockheed Martin, DRS Technologies and Daylight Defense last month submitted a proposal to demonstrate their CIRCM technology to the military. Lockheed's CIRCM is designed to work with the Army's existing Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) to provide rotary-wing aircraft with a laser-based countermeasure. Lockheed integrates Daylight Defense's quantum cascade laser with pointer tracker units from DRS Technologies.