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Military plans to test new helicopter alert threat system

The Pentagon is about to deploy a experimental system intended to help helicopters evade deadly small-arms fire.

In its effort to respond quickly to requests from the combatant commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Pentagon is about to deploy an experimental system intended to help helicopters evade deadly small-arms fire, the military's top science and technology official said Thursday.

The helicopter alert threat system is a spin-off of the Boomerang sniper detection devices already being used on ground combat vehicles in Afghanistan, said Zackary Lemnios, the Defense Department's director of defense research and engineering.

The protective system uses 18 acoustic sensors on the helicopter and a computer-based analyzer to detect rifle or machine-gun fire and to pinpoint the source. Although it cannot ward off the small-arms fire, it can alert the helicopter crew to a threat it might not otherwise detect and guide the pilot away from the source before the shots can damage the aircraft, Zemnios said.

U.S. military helicopters already have sensors and countermeasures that can protect them from anti-aircraft missiles, but nothing that works against small arms, he told a Defense Writers Group breakfast.

Although some of the classified reports revealed by WikiLeaks indicated that the insurgents in Afghanistan might have used shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missiles, similar to the U.S. Stinger, to shoot down an Army CH-47, the biggest threat to helicopters is small arms, Lemnios said. He noted that he sees the threat reports from the combat theater every day.

The helicopter alert system is a response to a Joint Urgent Operational Needs request from the warfighters and was developed in about six months. It is an example of one of the top imperatives he established for his office -- accelerating the development of technology to assist in the current fight, Lemnios said.

When the request was received, an aide suggested trying the Boomerang system and a test was arranged quickly. Based on those trials, the system was installed on four Army H-60 Blackhawks. They will be deployed in October for realistic trials, Lemnios said.

Lemnios, who has worked in defense science and technology in the Pentagon, a defense-funded laboratory and in the private sector, said that in addition to working to support current fighting, he is pushing initiatives to invest in science and technology to address the uncertain future.

Other initiatives will be aimed at supporting acquisition reform efforts and ensuring the nation has the research and engineering workers it will need in the future, he said.

For those efforts, the Pentagon provides $3 billion a year to industry and spends $2 billion on research at defense laboratories or universities.