Versatile air decoy makes the most of COTS

WASHINGTON - The first strikes of the 1991 Persian Gulf War were to destroy Iraqi air defenses to enable coalition bombers to attack key military assets and fighter aircraft to dominate the skies. This successful effort involved the combined efforts of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, F-117 stealth fighter, and sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Mar 1st, 1998

By J.R. Wilson

WASHINGTON - The first strikes of the 1991 Persian Gulf War were to destroy Iraqi air defenses to enable coalition bombers to attack key military assets and fighter aircraft to dominate the skies. This successful effort involved the combined efforts of the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, F-117 stealth fighter, and sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles.

Future military strategy by the United States almost certainly will, once again, seek first to destroy the air defenses shielding the enemy. But those defenses are likely to become more sophisticated, even as the numbers of available U.S. attack aircraft and combat pilots decline. The technology supporting suppression of enemy air defenses, however, soon will have a new weapon to employ - the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD).

If the commercial industry is using a process or product that we can use, we gain a huge cost advantage because of the economies of scale.

Air Force Lt. Col. Walt Price

DARPA MALD program manager

In simple terms, the MALD launches from a jet fighter or bomber toward enemy territory. When its onboard sensors detect incoming radar pulses, the MALD generates a false signal that replicates the radar signature of virtually any tactical aircraft - or, in later versions, multiple aircraft. The idea is twofold. It not only saturates and stimulates enemy air defenses with false images to draw attention away from the real aircraft, but it also opens these air defenses to precision counterattack.

The 7-foot, 7-inch MALD measures 6 inches in diameter. Building the vehicle are engineers at Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical in San Diego under an advanced-concept contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in Arlington, Va.

The first flight demonstration is scheduled for mid-year. The first operational demonstration will follow in the fall. Teledyne Ryan officials are to build 42 units, 32 of which are to be delivered to an operational unit of the U.S. Air Force no later than April 1999. If all goes well, Teledyne Ryan officials then will submit a proposal to build 3,000 MALD systems with an average unit flyaway price of no more than $30,000.

The MALD is to have a range of at least 250 nautical miles, operate at altitudes as high as 30,000 feet, fly missions exceeding 20 minutes at subsonic speed, and navigate by as many as 100 waypoints. Standard Air Force mission planning software will control the flight, which operators can reprogram on the ground or change from the cockpit right up to the moment of launch.

Initial integration will be on the Lockheed Martin F-16 jet fighter, although Air Force leaders plan eventually to attach the MALD to hardpoints or internal bays of the Boeing F-15 fighter, Boeing F/A-18 fighter-bomber, Lockheed Martin F-22 fighter, Rockwell B-1 strategic bomber, and Joint Strike Fighter.

Officials of DARPA and the Air Force also see potentials beyond decoy duty for the MALD. Officials are considering a warhead package to convert the aircraft to a low-cost cruise-missile-defense or autonomous-attack system, jammers and radios to convert it electronic warfare or communications applications, delivery equipment to enable it to lay acoustic or seismic sensors, and even sensor packages to configure it for intelligence gathering.

"Anything you could come up with that fits in a cylinder six inches in diameter you can use as a payload," explains Air Force Lt. Col. Walt Price, DARPA`s MALD program manager. "The rest of the size depends on how much fuel you need to carry. Hopefully, we`re making a vehicle that is very modular, very adaptable in terms of mission and we`ll see a fairly large response in the community in terms of the type of vehicles we build."

The low unit cost of the MALD is a significant part of its attraction to a military staggering under unprecedented downsizing, deep budget cuts, and increasing active deployments. Military planners intend MALD to be an expensive way to fool adversaries into believing that far more planes are mounting an attack than are actually in the air. In theory, this will give a relatively small number of manned aircraft a serious chance to reach and destroy their targets and then bring their crews home safely.

"You can imagine this being very similar to a target drone or other target decoys in the inventory, but we are an order of magnitude less in cost," DARPA`s Price says. "We do that by making it throwaway and by using commercial products. If the commercial industry is using a process or product that we can use, we gain a huge cost advantage because of the economies of scale."

MALD`s mission processing, for example, comes from a PC-104 Intel 486 100 MHz single-board computer. "We use several of them in the vehicle, each taking a space about 4 inches square," Price says. "That is one of the innovative things Teledyne Ryan came up with in their ability to make a very inexpensive flight control system from an avionics point of view. Basically, Teledyne Ryan is probably ready to use this flight computer in some of its other mid-size UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles] as soon as the system proves itself because of the significant flight reductions over what they currently are using."

But computers are not the only commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) elements of MALD.

"Electronics miniaturization in general is a major enabler - the fact the commercial world is continuing to shrink things," Price says. "The guidance and nav systems are strictly commercial, such as GPS on a card - the same unit that would be in a Cadillac with a moving map display. And we certainly can`t leave out the four-inch diameter engine, which we flew first at DARPA in March 1996, but now several agencies are looking at for their projects.

"There is one process the auto industry is using called sheet molded compound process to produce very-high-strength, resilient automotive structural parts," Price continues. "We`re using that same process to produce the MALD fuselage. This process lends itself to CAD [computer aided design] and relatively inexpensive tooling. We`re going to commercial vendors to get these processes in place and it is commercial vendors who are producing the parts for us."

MALD is the direct result of DARPA`s Small Engine Advanced Program, which resulted in successful development of an extremely small 50-pound-thrust turbojet engine by Sundstrand Power in San Diego, designated the TJ-50. Other components of the baseline vehicle include the Sundstrand TJ-50 fuel control, an Airtex fuel pump, Teledyne Ryan M419 electro-mechanical actuators, Pacific Scientific pyro flare igniter, and a GPS guidance and positioning system.

"When we say everything is tradable except the fly-away price, that`s the truth," Price says. "However, Teledyne Ryan is trying to do that without trading anything. They`re trying to hold to our original desires in terms of performance. And so far nothing of any significance has been traded. We actually traded up in performance in some areas, such as waypoints. We originally asked for eight waypoints, but the computers they are using give us more than ten times that many. And as the commercial computer industry upgrades, we will upgrade as well."

With the costs down, the MALD effectively becomes a "wooden round" with a shelf life of 15 years and no maintenance. If one pulled from its box in the field is not functioning properly, it will simply be discarded rather than repaired, thus eliminating maintenance training and personnel as well as a new logistics requirement for spare parts and tools.

"The physics are well in hand; we know how to build the vehicle and its electronics," Price explains. "But once we are in the air and dealing with real data and not theorized data, we must make certain this vehicle looks like a real tactical aircraft. Toward this end, MALD program officials are working with planners at the U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base, Va.

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