Missile defense system concludes first operational mission

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Allen Pickert
  • 190th Public Affairs
It's been said that there are only two kinds of aircraft: fighters and targets. While that is an exaggeration there is some truth to the statement and even more so when referencing military aircraft. When it comes to aerial combat the 190th's KC-135R Stratotanker, with no weapons and no defenses, could only qualify as a big fat aerial target. However, the Stratotanker's time as a defenseless utility aircraft may be coming to an end.

In March, a 190th tanker took a Large Aircraft Infrared Counter Measure (LAIRCM) package along for operational evaluation to Afghanistan. The primary mission for the tanker and its Kansas Air Guard crew was the evacuation of wounded personnel from the Afghan theater to Ramstein, Germany. Aero medical evacuation is a mission the 190th has performed numerous times in the past, but this time the KC-135 had more protection than just the cover of darkness and an irregular approach to the Bagram air field. Mounted to the belly of the plane was the LAIRCM pod, designed to detect and defeat incoming infrared anti-aircraft missiles.

The last 30 years has seen a large proliferation of small, man-portable, self-contained infrared anti-aircraft missiles throughout the world. These weapons are typically shoulder fired with a range of about 3 miles. There are tens of thousands of these weapons unaccounted for and they are small enough to fit into a car, which means there could be sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles virtually anywhere in the world at anytime.

The Northrop Grumman LAIRCM system, known as "The Guardian," is pod based and designed to detect and employ countermeasures against infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles. When the system detects a launch, it provided 360-degree protection by tracking the incoming missile and then jamming the missile's guidance system with a laser beam. The entire process occurs in seconds and requires no action by the tanker's crew.

"It's this sort of cooperative effort between the military and the private sector that drive advances in military technology," said Maj. Gen. (KS) Lee Tafanelli, the adjutant general. "This new system will provide a strong measure of protection for U.S. airmen as they carry out their vital missions at home and abroad."

The Guardian System is contained almost entirely in a single pod that mounts to the underside of the tanker's fuselage. The system can be removed and mounted on another aircraft in a matter of minutes, providing flexibility and cost savings as it can be removed from aircraft not in harm's way. This is in stark contrast to typical defensive systems where all the system's components are permanently installed throughout the aircraft.

The system provides the crew and passengers another layer of safety says Master Sgt. Shad England, 190th avionics, who flew into Afghanistan with the LAIRCM. "The Guardian system gave everyone involved in the aero medical mission a new sense of security when travelling on a KC-135 into a potentially hostile environment."

Initial indications are that the Guardian system performed well. The Coyote crew made four flights into Afghanistan, bringing more than 60 wounded warriors to Germany. After each flight, the Guardian system required less time and attention with its maintenance, ultimately becoming brief and routine.

"Anti-missile technology is long overdue on the KC-135," said Col. Keith Lang, commander of the 190th Air Refueling Wing. "The Stratotanker has flown in harm's way since Vietnam and the time is right to add this extremely important defensive capability."

The Air Force has not decided if the Guardian system will be standard equipment on Stratotankers. However, the work of the 190th towards the Guardian's development and testing will form much of the basis on which the Air Force will decide the defensive system's future.

The innovation and leadership of the 190th is nothing new for Lt. Col. Jay Selanders, who served as the aircraft commander on the recently completed mission. "The 190th has a history of leading the way in KC-135 innovation," said Selander. We have played a significant role in the development of this system, including this opportunity for its first operational deployment and testing. I personally hope that we stay involved with the system as it continues to develop."