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Weapons Sought to Shield Tanks and Infantry : $11-Billion Air Defense System in Works

August 19, 1986|NORMAN KEMPSTER | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon on Monday announced an $11-billion, 10-year program to develop an integrated air defense system to protect tanks and infantrymen from increasingly potent Soviet helicopters on the battlefields of the 21st Century.

The program--immediately dubbed "son of DIVAD," a reference to the now-defunct Sgt. York division air defense gun--is intended to plug the hole in the Army's tactical air defense caused by the failure of the earlier DIVAD weapon to meet the Pentagon's specifications.

Army spokesmen predicted that the system would be in place by 1991, although they acknowledged that engineers have not yet solved most of the technological problems that led to the cancellation of the Sgt. York project.

Deputy Defense Secretary William Howard Taft approved the new Army concept Thursday, although the selection of basic hardware has not been made. The new plan is intended to integrate the front-line air defense role originally assigned to the Sgt. York with other battlefield anti-aircraft functions, some of which can be performed with existing weapons.

$1.8 Billion Spent

The plan was made public only nine days before the first anniversary of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger's announcement that the Sgt. York gun was "not worth the additional cost" of completing it. The original project was scrapped after the Pentagon had spent $1.8 billion.

The Army was somewhat vague about details of the new program. Spokesmen said contractors will be invited to submit proposals to meet performance goals. Because contracts are expected to total more than $1 billion a year, the competition is expected to be brisk.

To provide the front-line defense originally envisioned for DIVAD, the Army pictures a combination of missiles and guns designed to shoot down any enemy helicopters and fixed-wing, close-air-support aircraft within the line of sight of the gunner.

Lt. Col. James Starkey, chief of the Army air defense team, said contractors will be asked to submit proposals by January and prepare prototypes for a "shoot-off" in September, 1987. He said 29 contractors exhibited some interest in the project, although only between seven and 10 of them appeared to be far enough along to have prototypes ready in 13 months.

Estimated Cost

The Army estimates that the system will cost $3.5 billion over the next 10 years, about the same amount that would have been spent to complete the Sgt. York project. However, congressional approval is necessary for any funding of the new plan.

Unlike the canceled DIVAD gun, the new system will have no radar of its own. Radar proved to be the weakest component of the Sgt. York system because it frequently failed to find a potential target and because modern aircraft carry devices that can detect enemy radar and fire radar-seeking missiles at it.

Starkey said the new system will have only infrared "passive" sensors to help the gunner find and hit a target. That should make it easier to conceal the system from hostile aircraft, he said.

But passive sensors by themselves are not nearly effective enough at locating helicopters and other aircraft. To fill that gap, the Army proposed a $2.5-billion command and control program built around airborne radar carried by helicopters, balloons or drone aircraft and ground-based radar facilities that would spot targets and pass the information to the anti-aircraft gunners.

New Helicopters

Neither the original DIVAD nor its proposed successor can attack targets out of the line of sight of the gunner, such as helicopters hovering behind a hill. Starkey said the Soviets are developing a new generation of helicopters that can hide far better than existing ones.

To meet that threat, the Army wants a remotely guided missile that can search out and attack lurking helicopters. Although no system has yet been chosen, Starkey said the leading contender is a missile that locates its target with a television camera mounted in the nose. The television image would be carried to the gunner through a six-mile-long fiber-optic wire. The Army believes this program will cost about $2.7 billion.

The Army also wants $1.3 billion for a system of vehicle-mounted Stinger missiles, which could provide air defense for rear areas of the battlefield. Currently, Stingers are fired from soldiers' shoulders. Starkey said that mounting several of them on a vehicle would increase the firepower of each gunner.

To round out the program, the Army wants $800 million to develop ammunition for tank guns that could be used to attack helicopters, as well as other tanks.

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