Kelly McSweeney

Jun 15th 2020

Radar Systems Get a High-Tech Upgrade


Modern warfare calls for high-tech equipment. Even a reliable, classic defense tool — radar — has room for improvement. Therefore, Northrop Grumman is replacing legacy equipment with updated radar to detect objects with greater accuracy without sacrificing mobility. Current radar technology enables machines to track multiple types of rocket, artillery and mortar rounds simultaneously. Radar systems are becoming increasingly digital, so in the future we could start to see the merging of radar, electronic warfare, communications and other functions.

While older radar systems were mechanically scanned, the latest systems are defined by software. With active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology, a beam of radio waves can be electronically steered to point in different directions without physically repositioning the antenna. This has the effect of giving an operating machine excellent peripheral vision, because while the equipment faces one direction, AESA radar can also focus separate beams on other areas.

Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR)

The newest radar systems are also more jam-proof and harder to detect. AESA radar was developed from modern airborne radar designs, but it is now being used to equip versatile ground machines. Northrop Grumman’s Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) system is a single radar that can replace a handful of other legacy radars. While ground and air defense missions previously required separate radars, G/ATOR does both. Having one radar system for multiple missions reduces operation and maintenance costs. It was developed to protect Marine expeditionary forces, but in the future, it may also be useful for the Army for ground missions and Air Force for air missions.

G/ATOR detects and tracks targets such as rockets, artillery, mortars, cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The antenna array rotates to provide 360-degree coverage, and the entire system can be set up in less than an hour. For maximum mobility, the antenna and its drive system are mounted on a trailer. A lightweight cooling system uses forced circulation from fans blowing ambient air through the array. The trailer is pulled by a truck which has a mounted generator to provide power to the radar system. A Humvee with a shelter provides the ability to communicate via radios. Although G/ATOR is powerful, it breaks down into lightweight components so it is more mobile than traditional radar and can be transported via helicopter or cargo aircraft.

Highly Adaptable Multi-Mission Radar (HAMMR)

Highly Adaptable Multi-Mission Radar (HAMMR) is a high performance radar system that provides full capability on the move. Like G/ATOR, it takes the AESA technology from airborne fighter radars and repurposes it for ground missions. This system can track multiple targets (rockets, artillery, mortars, aircraft and small UAS) traveling in a variety of paths and trajectories. Unlike existing systems, HAMMR is designed as a secure software defined, hardware enabled, mission system so it is modular and scalable. It can rapidly be reconfigured in the field with software upgrades to address new threats. It can counter cruise missiles. The radar spins to provide 360-degree coverage, and it has a small footprint. It’s mountable on a vehicle so the operators are protected even when they are on the move. Tracking targets while moving greatly improves the system’s survivability.

Digital Radar

Engineers at Northrop Grumman are developing systems that use digitally beamed radar. The company’s chief engineer and system architect on the radar team said, “We have just begun to scratch the surface with digital radar.” The chief went onto explain, “These are just coming to market now, and we have started to explore the capabilities that we could potentially bring to the warfighter. With digital, we have so much more power and flexibility available to us [than analog radars]. There is a huge capability improvement that is available that we’re going bring to fruition in the next ten to 20 years.”

The biggest challenge that remains is figuring out how to handle the data that digital radar collects. Research is still needed regarding signal processing, data processing and data dissemination. There is an opportunity for a single piece of hardware to serve several different functions at once. Figuring out exactly how this will be done is a multidisciplinary effort that requires electrical engineers, software engineers, systems engineers, mechanical engineers and even more.

While the basic principles of radar remain the same as always, the technology at the core of radar systems has changed. Thanks to decades of research and work by electrical, mechanical and software engineers — including at Northrop Grumman, where you can actively take part — radar systems are now more versatile and modular, while still remaining accurate.