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For Immediate Release
January 23, 2004

Protecting Big Birds: Georgia Tech Engineers Test New Flare Decoys on Military Aircraft

With the increasing threat of enemy attack on military aircraft by heat-seeking missiles, engineers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) are testing new defensive countermeasures called decoy flares, which confuse the weapons’ tracking systems.

A British C-130J launches flare countermeasures prior to landing at the reopened military runway at Baghdad International Airport on July 1.
U.S. Air Force Photo: Master Sgt Rogert R. Hargreaves, Jr.

Because these missiles vary in their schemes for rejecting decoys, researchers are trying to develop a one-size-fits-all flare pattern. They are running thousands of computer simulations to examine as many flare pattern combinations as possible. Then they test the best ones in the field.

This past summer, the researchers tested decoy flare patterns on military aircraft at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida as part of their project for the U.S. Air Mobility Command and the Air National Guard. Field tests are key to tailoring the flare pattern to individual aircrafts and determining the relative success rate between different patterns, researchers explain.

In these tests, researchers use real flares and real planes, but captive missiles in seeker test vans, which behave as though the missiles were in flight. If the missile seeker transfers its track from the aircraft to the decoy, then the flare pattern is considered a success.

At Eglin, GTRI researchers evaluated flares on four large transport aircraft: the C-5, C-17, C-130 and MH53. This followed a field test in May 2003 in Yuma, Ariz., which evaluated new flares for the A-10, F-15 and F-16 fighter planes.

Although GTRI has been developing countermeasures for many years, the war on terrorism has accelerated efforts.

“We’re working at a heavy, steady pace – building on the progress we make from each test,” says project director Charles Carstensen, a senior research scientist in GTRI’s Electro-Optics, Environment and Materials Laboratory. “Flares are part of our country’s overall requirement to be prepared to fight. If we’re ready to fight, then there’s less likelihood we’ll need to.”

Made of magnesium, decoy flares confuse a missile’s tracking system by burning white-hot when dispensed. They can defend military aircraft against man-portable air defense missile systems (MANPADS), which use infrared sensors to detect jet engine exhaust.

An estimated 500,000 MANPADS exist, posing particular danger to the large aircraft that refuel fighter planes and transport troops, such as the C-5 and the C-17. These aircraft are attractive targets for MANPADS because of their large size and slower speeds.

“MANPADS have been around for three decades, but they’ve become a bigger threat in recent years because of their increasing sophistication and relative ease of use,” Carstensen says. He estimates that MANPADS represent 65 to 70 percent of the United States’ air defense problems.

In addition to flares, GTRI also has expertise in directional infrared countermeasure systems (DIRCM), which are jamming systems that use laser beams to inject a signal into the tracking system of an incoming missile, causing it to fly away from the aircraft.

“The beauty of being a research institute is providing independent assessments on different types of countermeasures. We don’t have an agenda at GTRI,” Carstensen adds. “We evaluate what is the best that can be done with each system. Our bottom line is to protect the air crew.”

Georgia Institute of Technology
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Atlanta, Georgia 30332 USA


TECHNICAL CONTACT: Charles Carstensen (404-894-0134); E-mail: (

WRITER: T.J. Becker