Just because low-flying C-17s can drop their cargo under the cover of night does not mean they won't come under attack from heat-seeking missiles. Being one of most highly defended aircraft in the world, its defenses can include popping flares and clouds of infrared energy. It can even shoot lasers directly at the incoming missile. And holy crap is it pretty!
Here is a large GIF file for non-flash enabled readers:
The USAF's C-17 Fleet is equipped with one the most capable infrared countermeasure systems in the entire DoD aircraft inventory. The big jet's skin is dotted with small, blister-like enclosures that house staring lenses that can detect missile launches and track their trajectory. Once an infrared guided missile, such as a shoulder-fired MANPADS, is detected, it can be countered via the deployment of decoy flares and BOL-IR expendable countermeasures. These can be dispersed automatically, semi-automatically or manually depending how the jet's self-defense system is configured by its crew based on the perceived threat.
In addition to launching expendable decoys and blinding clouds of infrared energy, the C-17 is also equipped with a highly capable laser countermeasure system known as the Large Aircraft Infrared Countermeasure (LAIRCM). Configurations vary from jet to jet. but all include at least a single AN/AAQ-24 Nemesis (later the smaller Guardian version) laser turret mounted on the bottom of the C-17s tail, and some aircraft have multiple turrets scattered around the jet, including on either side of the nose and below the fuselage.
These turrets are cued by the C-17s missile launch detectors and track an incoming missile as it approaches. Once in range, they fire a modulated laser beam directly into the missile's infrared seeker, thus blinding it and throwing it off course, and hopefully outside the missile's seeker viewing envelope.
The LAIRCM system has been upgraded constantly over the last decade plus of constantly flying in and out of war zones, and multiple Nemesis turrets should allow for the system to prioritize, classify and engage multiple missile engagements from different vectors at a single time. This is precisely why heads of state and even the Secretary of Defense has been seen often de-boarding their standard aircraft at a friendly airbase or airport and flying into the war zone in a LAIRCM defended C-17. A custom Airstream trailer was built during the Rumsfeld years in an attempt to turn a SecDef carrying C-17 into a working environment. Today, many of the DoD's VIP aircraft are equipped with LAIRCM, allowing them to enter similar threat environments as the C-17.
For more on how these systems work, and how they are different from one another, you can read this past Foxtrot Alpha feature.
When it comes to the C-17, the use of countermeasures is common during the approach and departure from an airdrop zone, where the big jets' low energy state and low altitude leave them vulnerable to MANPADS attacks. Joint Base Lewis McChord, located near Tacoma, WA, has some expansive training areas where these types of training events occur regularly, although they have never been captured on video quite like this. So take that retired F-111 and your spectacular 'dump an burn' maneuver!
Photos via DoD, video via Joint Base Lewis McChord
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer that maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com