Northrop Grumman has begun company-funded development of a Directed Infrared Countermeasures (Dircm) system for fast jets, anticipating a requirement to protect the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from heat-seeking air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.

“We believe the requirement is there, and coming quickly, and that the first opportunity will be on the F-35,” says Jeff Palombo, senior vice president and general manager of Northrop’s land and self-protection systems division.

Northrop plans to begin testing a prototype of the Threat Nullification Defensive Resource (ThNDR) system in its system-integration laboratory by year’s end, he revealed at a briefing in Washington Sept. 12.

The timing for development of a laser missile jammer to equip the F-35 “is still in question,” Palombo says, “but we want to get out in front of the requirement.”

Northrop has supplied more than 3.000 Dircms to protect large aircraft and helicopters against heat-seeking missiles by directing a modulated laser beam into the seeker head to confuse its guidance.

A Dircm is not part of the requirements for the initial, Block 3-standard F-35 now in development. But draft requirements already exist and Northrop says a laser jammer is now expected to be part of the scheduled Block 5 update.

The system must meet low-observability (LO) requirements and be packaged to fit in a restricted space available inside the F-35. But it will have a smaller, more-powerful laser than current Dircm systems and require liquid cooling, Palombo says.

The ThNDR, which includes the laser, beam steering and LO window, is packaged to fit inside volume available alongside sensors for the F-35’s distributed aperture system (DAS). There would be two jam heads, one on top and one underneath the aircraft to provide spherical coverage with minimal change to the outer mold line.

The DAS, which has six infrared sensors located to provide a 360-deg. view around the aircraft, would provide missile warning, detecting and declaring incoming threats and cueing the pointer/tracker, or jam head.

Beyond the stealthy F-35 and Lockheed Martin F-22, Northrop sees requirements for a podded version to protect aircraft such as the Boeing F-15 and Lockheed F-16. “It can be put in a self-contained pod, and it can be air-cooled,” Palombo says.

Tests in the system-integration lab will look at challenges such as the high-speed hand-off of targets between the upper and lower jam heads as the F-35 rolls at rates of up to 170-deg./sec., he says.

Northrop is evaluating lasers from three suppliers, and looking at quantum cascade laser (QCL) technology. Offering lower cost and higher reliability, QCLs are used for the first time in the compact Common Infrared Countermeasures (Circm) system under development to equip U.S. Army helicopters.

The competitive technology-development phase for Circm is scheduled to end early in 2014. A request for information for the engineering and manufacturing development phase has been issued, and a request for proposals is anticipated early in 2014, Palombo says.