As U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan winds down, a workhorse electronic protection system that helps helicopter aircrews survive attacks from shoulder-fired weapons, prepares to be redeployed to other regions. For the last five years, the Advanced Threat Infrared Countermeasures (ATIRCM) system has protected helicopters and their crews in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The threat of ground-based explosives made the use of helicopters for troop and equipment transportation in this region standard operating procedure.

The ATIRCM system was developed as the result of a partnership between the U.S. Army and our company to counter the omnipresent threat of shoulder-fired weapons known as ManPortable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS). These heat-seeking missiles home in on the infrared energy generated by the heat of an aircraft’s engine, making helicopters ideal targets. ATIRCM was designed as the countering component of an integrated suite which includes, its “eyes”, the Common Missile Warning System (CMWS) which can cue either ATIRCM’s laser response or the other component of the integrated suite, a flare dispenser.

To assure that troops were not vulnerable to these heat-seeking missiles during their time in the Middle East, ATIRCM was deployed on mission critical helicopters. The ATIRCM system is an electronic device installed on the helicopter that tracks an incoming missile, and then shines laser light into the missile’s “eyes”, effectively blinding its guidance and preventing it from homing in on the aircraft.

Colonel John (Russ) Leaphart, (recently retired) Army program manager for Aircraft Survivability Equipment under whose leadership the ATIRCM system emerged as a benchmark for reliability, said during his tenure that, “the ATIRCM system’s performance is an achievement that we can all be proud of in our commitment to giving our warfighters the best survivability equipment available.”

Arming helicopter crews with a protection system containing sensitive optical components that can provide high reliability in the harsh, low-altitude, military environment is no easy task, but the ATIRCM system has surpassed all Army expectations. The technology has achieved a level of reliability that gives aircrews the confidence to know that whenever they take off, they can count on the protection designed to help them accomplish their missions and return safely. The latest numbers show the reliability of ATIRCM to be 1,110 hours, which is the mean time between mission affecting failures, surpasses the Army requirement several times over.

“We’ve been consistently investing in this technology and continuously improving its reliability. With the latest plans that the ATIRCM system will be in the field until at least 2023, we know the significance of continuing to fund the types of technology that make for easy capability upgrades,” said Terry Crimmins, vice president and general manager of BAE System’s Survivability and Targeting Systems.

A major part of our company investment has been in a program internally known as Boldstroke, which became the foundation of our Common Infrared Countermeasure (CIRCM) offering – a lighter, even more advanced version of the ATIRCM system. The CIRCM system uses the same high power combat-proven laser technology as ATIRCM, but in a smaller package.

With the pervasive threat of MANPADS to allied forces in all regions of the world, technology like the ATIRCM system will continue to be an essential element of aircraft survivability. The ATIRCM system has demonstrated that it can answer the call in times of urgent need and will be there the next time it is called upon to help bring troops home safely.