System Check: US Air Force personnel conduct an operational check of an AN/TPS-75 radar system at Balad Air Base, Iraq. (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — For years, the AN/TPS-75 has been the US Air Force’s “grab and go” radar system. Get it into an operational field, set it up, and it provides wide-range coverage of what is going on in the skies.
But like so much of the service’s technology, the TPS-75 needs revitalization. The threat environment has changed, and new technologies could render the radar “incapable of detecting some current and emerging threats,” according to service budget documents.
Enter the Three Dimensional Expeditionary Long Range Radar (3DELRR) program. The service plans to replace the TPS-75 with 3DELRR toward the end of the decade, assuming the budget holds.
In the Pentagon’s fiscal 2014 budget request, the service asked for $70.1 million in research, development, test and evaluation funds for the radar program, a figure Congress knocked down to $54.1 million in the National Defense Authorization Act.
For fiscal 2015, the Air Force has again sought an increase, this time to $88.8 million. That request rises to $98.2 million in fiscal 2016, and then drops to $68.6 million in fiscal 2017, $24.7 million in fiscal 2018 and $35.7 million in fiscal 2019.
A timeline included in the budget notes a goal to get 3DELRR out for initial deployment by fiscal 2020, which may explain why those figures drop over time; as the program gets closer to procurement, the need for research funding slows down. Low-rate initial production is scheduled to begin by early fiscal 2018.
The Air Force intends to award a contract by the third quarter of this year, with a critical design review by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
That timeline “tracks with what we always hear about an increasing threat environment after 2018-2020,” said Rebecca Grant, president of IRIS Independent Research. “This is part of preparing the Air Force for operations in that future environment.”
The older radars cannot track threats such as stealthy cruise missiles and UAVs, Grant said.
“If [the Air Force] needs to go somewhere and set up airfield defense, this is what they need,” Grant said. “I’d say it’s a pretty high-priority program. It looks like these days, anything can be slipped, but they need to get on and do this. This plugs a lot of holes for them in any scenario, whether it’s Asia-Pacific or another location.”
Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman are vying to produce the radar. Company officials have acknowledged that cost is going to be a priority because of its relatively low profile compared with Air Force programs such as the F-35 joint strike fighter, KC-46 tanker and long-range strike bomber, or even second-tier procurement programs like the T-X trainer.
Asked for reaction to the budget request, a Raytheon spokesman declined to comment on budget matters. A Northrop official called the service’s funding request “consistent” with the request for proposal issued last November.
“The USAF has done a good job articulating the 3DELRR long-range surveillance mission need, and the program funding levels have essentially remained intact,” a Lockheed statement read. “They continue to their current procurement plan as launched in the RFP late last year and the program should begin later this year.“
The winner of the competition will develop 35 systems for the Air Force, but that’s not necessarily the end game. The international market for ground-based radars is fairly large, and allied countries will likely follow the Air Force’s lead in making a procurement decision. Therefore, if you win 3DELRR, your company could have access to hundreds of radar sales around the globe.
The program has growth opportunities domestically as well. In budget documents, the Air Force notes the US Marine Corps is considering using 3DELRR as a replacement for its AN/TPS-59.
The 3DELRR program is part of a broader attempt to upgrade Air Force radar capabilities on a variety of platforms. Speaking in November, Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, said fighter jet radars are a service priority.
“If you look at fighter radars, for example, we have to upgrade in some cases,” Welsh said. “Our legacy aircraft are going to be around for a long time.”
One effort was the F-16 Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) program, which would have upgraded 300 US and 146 Taiwanese F-16s with new avionics. The core of that upgrade was Northrop’s scalable agile beam radar. CAPES, however, was defunded in the service’s latest budget request.
That doesn’t mean the service is abandoning radar upgrades. At a breakfast event last week, service undersecretary Eric Fanning said radar upgrades are “clearly a priority” for the F-16.
“Radar modification is important. We’re still looking into that,” Fanning said. “We’re still determining exactly how we’ll do that.”
Fanning added that whatever upgrade package is settled on by Air Combat Command, it won’t be a “CAPES lite.”
The F-15 is in better shape when it comes to radar upgrades. The APG-82(V) modernization for the F-15E Strike Eagle receives $240.9 million in the budget request, while the APG-63(V) modification, which upgrades the radar on the F-15C/D, is earmarked for $117.4 million. Both programs got a boost over fiscal 2014 request levels.
Another program, the Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), is slated to receive $2.4 billion over the course of the future years defense plan. That money will go for a new JSTARS design, moving it toward a business jet rather than the current Boeing 707. ■