Helicopters Equipped With Acoustic Shot Detection Bound for Afghanistan

While missiles and RPGs have downed more helicopters in both Iraq and Afghanistan, insurgents shouldering the venerable AK-47 are a far more frequently encountered threat to helicopters in Afghanistan than shoulder fired missiles.

Army and Marine helicopters have been equipped with electronic detection and countermeasures to protect against shoulder fired and larger missiles for years. Yet, there are no systems to tell pilots when they’re coming under small arms fire. That’s about to change.

The military is sending four UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to Afghanistan, each of which is rigged with 18 acoustical sensors able to detect the supersonic shock wave of a bullet in flight and then triangulate and pinpoint the gunmen. The program, known as Helicopter Alert and Threat Termination (HALTT) system, under development by DARPA, will see its first operational testing come October, Zachary Lemnios, director of Defense Research & Engineering, told reporters today.

HALTT borrows technology from the Boomerang acoustic gunshot detection system developed for ground vehicles. The helicopter equivalent is intended to warn pilots of where the shooter is located, in under a second, so they can either take evasive action or engage.

According to data compiled by a congressionally mandated study (see article pg. 9) on helicopter survivability, a total of 70 U.S. helicopters have been downed by hostile fire in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2001 through 2009. The report found that 375 helicopters in total have been lost; 305 of those classified as non-hostile and non-combat events. The study found that insurgents most often visually acquired their targets as 75 percent of helicopters were downed during daylight hours; the report does not say whether infra-red tracking missiles accounted for any night-time losses.

Small arms fire, including machine guns, have accounted for 31 percent of helicopter losses in Iraq and Afghanistan; the majority of losses came from enemy RPGs and MANPADS. The low loss rate to small arms fire actually represents a huge improvement over Vietnam, where some 2,000 helicopters were downed by enemy fire; 94 percent of those losses coming from small arms fire.

The study concluded that better tactics, flying at night with the aid of night vision and hardier aircraft design in today’s wars account for the dramatic difference. In the early Vietnam years, single engine designs, lack of night vision goggles, lack of critical system redundancy and non-crashworthy fuel systems resulted in high losses.

The study says there were no reported losses in Iraq or Afghanistan to radar-guided weapons.

— Greg Grant

  • panfisher2708

    Nothing like using the ak fire as a sighting plane for return fire.

  • Mr_GoodKat

    “the majority of losses came from enemy RPGs and MANPADS”

    I thought the DOD already denied there had been ZERO use of MANPADS against coalition forces???

    • DevilPup

      If I remember correctly there was something about the use of MANPADs, probably the SA-7, in that Wikilinks leak.

    • William C.

      That was never the case.

  • JEFF

    Umm… 305 helicopters lost to non-hostile and non-combat events seems high? Or am I missing something.

    • Joe Shmoe

      My guess would be the usual maintenance issues as well as brownouts.

      Remember that try to land a helicopter in a desert on the side of a mountain at night is a tricky thing at best.

  • blight

    They’re comparing relative to Vietnam…where 2,000 helicopters lost is probably from ’65-72; when we went from SF advisors up to 500,000 soldiers and then back down from Vietnamization.

    My concerns are:

    -Can helicopter accurately discriminate even with high background noise?

    -Is the designation system integrated into targeting systems for these UH-60s? And if so, how? There’s no point in knowing where they are if there is no quick way to put lead on target. Is targeting still done manually with human operators? There’s a lot that is not elaborated on, and perhaps there is a good reason for it…

    • Chaboss

      I agree, but knowing DARPA this is really just an on-field, data-collection beta test for them, 4 UH-60’s is nothing. They could take the results and then completely change or scrap the system. You make a good point though about location identification being irrelevant as the chopper moves unless return fire is near-instantly applied.

      My advice to DARPA, assuming their 18 acoustic sensors have a spacial resolution of just a few inches, about a foot at worst, is to concurrently research, design and field a light-but-lethal, flight-stabilized, automatic and automated 50 cal sniping platform autonomously aimed and fired by the shot-detection system, fitted as sleekly as possible on to the undercarriage. When the detection and gun are both activated, a hostile fires a shot, the gun instantly places 5-6 precision-fired rounds anywhere within a 2-foot radius (can even be randomized to ensure maximum spread) of the exact detection source point. 50cal is sufficiently large to practically ensure that a single successful bullet would neutralize the target, but also small enough so that fitting one underneath shouldn’t be too problematic. If placing it in the undercarriage isn’t feasible, it would cost more but designing a fold-out weapons bay for it ala F-22 missile bays would work too.

      Otherwise the system will definitely help manual target acquisition with human-fired on-board LMG’s by a bit, but I don’t foresee the impact being much.

      • bobbymike

        Or put a couple of Dillon mini-guns and cut loose with a few hundred rounds, you know, to be sure.

      • Mr B

        Any automated system like that is going to have a significant weight penalty because now you have an additional gun, ammo, and machinery to move and stow it all.

        All they really need it to fit an indicator on the door gun gunsight that tells the gunner the bearing and elevation to the target. The only weight penalty here would be for the sight, and a few sensors on the gun so that the system knows where the gun is pointed (and therefore knows where to paint the dot on the sight).

        • Chaboss

          That’s actually not bad. You could even give the door gunner a heads-up display helmet mount like Apache pilots have (wouldn’t even need to be that sophisticated) so that they are seeing the terrain through an electronic see-through visor that paints the target’s actual physical location on the visor (and the gun sight as well) regardless of the chopper’s pitch, yaw, roll and forward motion. That would be a start, and certainly lighter and cheaper than an automated 50 cal.

          Ultimately, though, that leaves room for human error- overcompensating, barreling away at “ghost” targets no longer there, over-active firing in hot zones at multiple directions, etc. You’re right, the weight penalty is real, but nothing they couldn’t overcome, and think of the psychological impact on the enemy if you’re able to automatically effectively and instantly counter-snipe any hostile on the ground dumb enough to shoot at our helos. Insurgents are primitive but not *that* dumb, after a short while the basic logic would have to sink in their collective heads: you shoot at chopper, good chance you near-instantly die a nasty 50 cal sniping death, therefore don’t shoot at chopper.

  • Dave M.

    Can it only determine shots fired at itself or can the helicopter strafe an ongoing battle and pick up every shooter on the ground?

  • Bout time & add 50 cal rifles & Miniguns with 50 cal MG pod for Finish Off OR direct units to Firezone, & Blast em.

  • johnnie

    If we could just tie all that in to an automated death ray we’d be good.

    • Maxtrue

      exactly, or a hyper velocity round from an ass kicking rail gun.

  • Will

    Got to wonder if an acoustic detection system will function once the gun(s) on the helo start returning fire. Probably classified.

    • Mark

      Seems to me that if the helo is already returning fire, it wouldn’t matter if the system picks up it’s own onboard weapon? Very interesting project non the less.

    • Guest

      Will – there’s an acoustic delay that keeps Boomerang and other sonic sensors from triggering on return fire. These systems measure the “time-of-arrival” across several microphones to determine range and direction, and the technology only tracks on signals with gunshot signatures, so engine noise, etc. is not a problem. The 1-second time factor the article mentioned is probably the total time to detect, classify, annunciate location, and bring weapons to bear on target – the electronics is VERY fast, and many of us owe our lives to these systems.

      call sign “Matador”

  • recision

    Another technological wet dream that wont go anywhere.
    I imagine at best it would give a zone indication like the early missile warning devices in aircraft.
    And be about as useful.

    • E_Khun

      Zone identification is probably better as you can quickly be out of range and it doesn’t tempt some hotshot pilot to go and jeopardize his real mission to go hunting some farmer with an AK.

      For engagement such a system is far to easy to spoof with multiple AK’s. Or they can use an AK as bait to lure helicopters in for an easy MANPADS kill.

      • recision

        Agreed. :-)
        It tells you where to fly away from.

        • E_Khun

          Straight into that trap again. Or am I starting to get cynical? Nothing a bit of training to act unpredictable to this wouldn’t help I guess.

  • pedestrian

    No, I am not going to answer any questions this time.

  • Deepwoods

    Not to worry about the technical stuff or anything being classified, wait a couple of days and the traitors will post it on the internet!

  • blight

    I’d be happy if they amended the CWC to permit CS gas on the battlefield. I mean, a rocket full of pepper spray versus a high-explosive to flush out enemies…who are you protecting from non-lethal weapons, especially when a lethal one is substituted in its place?

  • guest

    tell everyone to leave and nuke the whole area

  • Dave

    Sigh……….. and here I sit with the answer to how defend ground vehicles from IEDs, now I gotta read about “boomerang airborne.”
    I put ten years into this proven system with the help of some brilliant folks including a Nobel Laureate. Can anyone tell me why I can’t get a company interested in seeing what my systems about…..?? Its been called “Airbag Armor”…. but, thats only a small fraction of what the system does.. Every IED that maims or kills a trooper breaks my heart…. best, Dave