An airman performs a maintenance inspection on an AN/TPS-75 air surveillance radar. A request for proposals has been issued for a new long-range radar to replace the AN/TPS-75. (US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — The US Air Force has issued a request for proposals (RFP) on its next-generation long range radar system, setting up the final stage of a years-long competition.
The RFP for the Three Dimensional Expeditionary Long Range Radar program, better known as 3DELLR, was released late Friday evening on a government contracting website.
The 3DELRR program will replace the USAF legacy TPS-75 land-based radar systems that the service believes are “incapable of detecting some current and emerging threats,” according to the solicitation notice.
The service has said it intends to purchase 35 3DELLR radars.
The RFP covers the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) and low rate initial production (LRIP) portions of the 3DELRR program. The RFP competition is open to the three companies that completed the Pre-EMD phase of the program: Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.
Proposals are due by 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 20; the service is expected to make a downselect in the second quarter of 2014
The early stages of the radar program began in 2009, and companies were anticipating an RFP to arrive before Thanksgiving. Defense News talked to all three competitors before the RFP was issued.
The government had initially planned on issuing its RFP in June, but that date slipped, something Mark Mekker, Lockheed’s director of ground-based surveillance radars, attributed to shifting fiscal realities. That delay is just one more sign that keeping costs down is going to be key for competitors.
The cost of the program may decide its future. 3DELLR has not been identified as one of the three key modernization priorities by the service, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently said sequestration could force the Air Force to cut “about 50 percent” of modernization programs.
“We can’t end up in the end with a radar system that does everything for [the Air Force] but they can’t afford it,” Mekker said. “You’re only going to do this once every 20-30 years so you have to make sure it’s affordable through the 20-year life cycle.”
Lockheed’s 3DELLR prototype is designed to be easily upgraded without having to modify the hardware, which should allow the Pentagon to meet future military threats without making costly changes to the radar system itself. That’s also a focus on Northrop’s offering, according to Mark Smith, the company’s business development director for ground-based tactical radars.
“As we add additional mission capability we must do it in software only without hardware modification,” Smith said, noting that those capabilities are built into the TPS-80 G/ATOR radar, designed for the Navy, and have undergone US government testing.
Although the requirements are different, Northrop plans to leverage the technological development it did on G/ATOR for 3DELLR, which Smith says will present the most low-cost solution with proven technological advancements.
Technologically, Smith calls the requirements for the program “extremely well-balanced,” with the service looking for expanded portability and range over legacy platforms.
Raytheon, which is basing its offering on its GaN-based C-Band full-scale prototype, also highlighted the track record of its technology as a selling point.
A preliminary design review found that the company “met all AF requirements, and we demonstrated unprecedented track accuracy for a ground-based surveillance radar,” Andrew Hajek, Raytheon 3DELRR program director, said in a statement. “Our 3DELRR solution is based upon 10+ years of company investment in our mature and industry leading GaN technology. Our GaN enables implementation of low risk, cost effective capabilities in any expeditionary radar system.”
In addition to the USAF requirement, the companies are eyeing a potentially rich global market.
Because partner nations want interoperability with US forces, winning the 3DELLR competition could open up potential sales in the hundreds, according to Northrop’s Smith.
“What history says is that the international market in due course is worth 1.5 to 2.5 times what the DoD ground-based radar market is,” Smith said, adding that his company has looked at the potential market and found a “conservative” number of over 100 potential customers.
“Once this gets developed and put in place, our international partners, starting with the most strong allies we have, will typically roll in behind and replace [their] radars just like the Air Force is replacing theirs,” Lockheed’s Mekker said. “It’s kind of a rolling cycle that certainly is an important part of this program.”
“There have been strong allied country partners that have already put out request for information for this class of radar and have been talking to the US Air Force already,” continued Mekker,
Both Lockheed and Northrop have a wide customer berth for older ground-based radar systems around the globe, and both men noted that 3DELLR is part of the Pentagon’s Defense Exportability Features (DEF) pilot program. DEF-designated programs allow partner nations to come in earlier on the development cycle, driving production rates up and costs down for both allies and the Air Force.
“We have already done significant work on the DEF portion of the 3DELLR contract,” Smith said. “It provides additional jobs in US industry, it saves the Air Force money, it saves international customers money — there’s just a whole host of good things that come with that.”