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A Weapon That Will Turn Heads

Defense: Helmets that allow pilots to aim their missiles simply by looking at targets could revolutionize combat.

April 06, 2002|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE — F-16 fighter jet pilots testing a futuristic weapon system are discovering that looks can indeed kill.

Test pilots here are flying with sophisticated helmets, resembling a bug's eye, that allow them to aim their weapons and sensors simply by looking at potential targets on the ground or in the air.

The helmets, when coupled with a highly maneuverable new missile that is close to deployment, would enable fighter pilots to look over their shoulders and fire instantly at targets, a feat that until now has been matched only in science fiction movies.

"It's going to revolutionize close-in dogfights," said Lt. Col. Troy Fontaine, operational officer for the 416th Flight Test Squadron, which recently began flying the helmets on F-16 fighter jets. "It'll give us air superiority because we'll be able to see first and shoot first."

Despite significant advances in combat aircraft, the way fighter pilots have engaged their targets has changed little since the birth of air combat using biplanes during World War I. Though missiles have replaced machine guns, the basics of a dogfight have not changed: A pilot must find the enemy, turn the plane toward it and fire before flying away.

With the new system, success in combat may no longer depend on how well pilots can maneuver their aircraft but on how fast they can turn their heads.

The headgear, formally the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System, recently completed initial tests on F-15 and F-18 fighters. More tests are planned for the F-16 before deployment in about three years, Air Force officials said.

The Pentagon envisions buying as many as 2,000 helmets, and an advanced system already is under development for the F-22 and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the next generation of fighter jets.

Boeing Co.'s military aircraft and missiles unit in St. Louis is the prime contractor for the helmet system, but much of the development was done by San Jose-based Vision Systems International, a joint venture of defense electronics maker Rockwell Collins Inc. and an Israeli firm, Elbit. The helmets will be manufactured by Vision Systems International.

The Pentagon has spent about $100million to develop the helmets and expects to spend about $672million to acquire 1,880 of them, along with accessories and modification kits to integrate the headgear into the various fighter jets. The helmet itself will cost about $190,000 when full production begins, Pentagon officials said.

Helmet-mounted display visors are not new. In the 1970s, F-4 Phantom pilots used headgear with a visual target acquisition system, which transferred information from the cockpit to the visor. But such rudimentary systems still required the plane to be oriented toward a target.

The latest system, which has been in development for more than a decade, uses a magnetic device to track head movement to determine where the pilot is looking and then projects information about the target to the pilot's visor.

Though seemingly simple, the technology represents a breakthrough.

A pilot wearing the helmet can look out the side of the cockpit, spot an enemy plane and then lock the missile's guidance system on the target before launching the weapon--all within a few seconds.

The coordinates of the target are transmitted instantly to the missile, which upon launch uses its own infrared and optic sensors to make the kill.

Much of the targeting information that the pilot sees is displayed on the right side of the visor as small green-tinted circles, squares and numbers. When a target is in the display's bull's-eye, the pilot pushes a button to launch the missile.

But the ability to see and mark a target at extreme angles, known as high off-bore sighting, is only as effective as the maneuverability of the missile, defense officials say. And the Pentagon has been developing a generation of missiles that can make sharp turns with very small radiuses.

The U.S. had decided not to develop a simple helmet-mounted display a decade ago when the Soviet Union did, precisely because there were no weapons that could take full advantage of the system.

The AIM-9X missile, under development by Raytheon Co. in Tucson, is designed with a sophisticated rocket engine that can change directions using its thrusters, making it the most maneuverable missile to date. Information about how sharply and quickly it can turn is classified.

Last year the Pentagon awarded Raytheon an 18-year contract valued at $3 billion to produce more than 10,000 missiles for both the Navy and the Air Force. Full production is expected to begin next year.

Capt. Jason Clemens, an F-16 pilot who used the helmet for the first time recently, says he also foresees the system dramatically improving air-to-ground attacks. A pilot using the helmet, he notes, would be able to mark a target on the ground for either a laser or a satellite-guided bomb.

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