Scott Cahoon

Oct 19th 2018

When is a Radar Not a Radar Anymore?


The concept of radar, while revolutionary at the time of its creation, seems deceptively simple today.

Preteens playing military-themed video games see and track their enemies on the radar display in the lower right corner of their screen. Speeding motorists pulled over by police officers hear their exact radar-verified velocity when told why they were stopped. Television meteorologists casually instruct viewers to look at the Doppler radar as an impending storm approaches.

The term “radar” itself is so common and widely understood in today’s lexicon, it’s easy to forget its origins. RADAR was an acronym first used by the U.S. Navy in 1940 to stand for radio detection and ranging that found its way into the public conscience.

But what if a radar does more than the detection and ranging the technology’s primary forefather, Scottish physicist Sir Robert Watson-Watt, envisioned? Is it still a radar?

As military technology becomes more sophisticated and threats continue to evolve, the need for multifunctional and adaptable equipment on the battlefield continues to grow. As a result, the radars of today and the future are doing far more than their predecessor’s mission of detection and tracking.

“In today’s warfare environment, as we try to pack more capability in to less space and weight, single-function systems are being replaced by multifunction systems,” said Curtis Pearson, director, strategic captures, Northrop Grumman. “This allows the space that used to be occupied by only a radar to contain a radar, a communications node or an electronic attack system based on the need of the warfighter.”

Modern actively-scanned electronic array (AESA) radars, including the APG-81 for the F-35 and APG-83 for the F-16 Viper, incorporate counter-jamming measures and can even act as electronic attack assets, affecting other radars, sensors, and communications nodes in the battlespace.

“For the warfighter, having the ability to quickly toggle between multiple functions on a single sensor provides a more efficient and effective means to meet and defeat unexpected threats or circumstances while completing the mission,” said Dan Dixon, Director, F-35 development planning, Northrop Grumman. “Another advantage is the ability to reduce the overall SWAP [Space, Weight and Power] requirements as compared to traditional federated mission system solutions. If one system can perform a variety of tasks at near simultaneous speeds, there’s potential to optimize next-generation system performance.”

An example of radar multifunction is the company’s Vanguard radar. Each Vanguard array contains a scalable number of small radar panels that link together. During missions, the panels can be programmed to either operate together as one large antenna unit or act separately as individual radars, jammers, or communications nodes. For example, in a six-panel array, four panels could be devoted to creating a synthetic aperture resolution map of an area below while two panels could be communicating out the data being collected.

“Vanguard redefines the way we produce radars and the capabilities that are possible within one flexible, scalable design,” said Paul Kalafos, Vice President of Surveillance and Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare, Northrop Grumman. “Vanguard’s modular radar panels are the building blocks for a multitude of future radar aperture applications.”

In other words, Vanguard is an indication that a new era of radar is upon us. If you can still call it that.