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Special Report: Radar and Electro-Optics

Mar. 18, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By TOM KINGTON   |   Comments
Better Radar Coming: The Eurofighter Typhoon's relatively large nose allows room for a large radar array, according to officials from the Euroradar consortium.
Better Radar Coming: The Eurofighter Typhoon's relatively large nose allows room for a large radar array, according to officials from the Euroradar consortium. (Eurofighter)
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A Eurofighter Typhoon combat jet is due to fly for the first time with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar later this year, marking a crucial milestone in the drawn-out development of the fighter’s new sensor.

Managers at Selex, a partner in the Euroradar consortium planning the Typhoon’s leap to AESA, are confident the demonstration will persuade all four partner countries to sign a development contract this summer, possibly at the Farnborough International Airshow. The Eurofighter program’s partners are Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain.

The signatures would end a more than three-year wait in which industry has funded development of a radar vital to the twin-engine combat jet’s hopes of winning an export competition.

During that time, the partners have dithered, and the plane has stalled in the export market.

“This year is a very important year for the Eurofighter radar,” said Andrew Cowdery, chairman of Euroradar. “We want solidity; we want to see the four nations contract for [AESA] development in place by midyear.”

Led by Italy’s Selex, Euroradar includes Airbus and Spain’s Indra, companies that worked on the mechanically scanned Captor radar used on the aircraft.

A modified Typhoon, IPA5, flown by BAE Systems, began test flights in February with a nonfunctional version of the new radar. But it had the correct cabling to check the weight, volume and connections of the sensor.

“IPA5 has undergone a significant upgrade in terms of structure and aircraft systems to provide an aircraft platform capable of supporting the AESA radar development program,” said a spokesman for the Eurofighter consortium. The companies participating in the consortium are BAE Systems; Airbus Defence & Space; and Alenia Aermacchi, a unit of Italy’s Finmeccanica group.

“In order to evaluate and test the aircraft systems in advance of radar hardware delivery, the initial flights are being conducted with mass representative line replaceable items [LRIs]. These are nonfunctioning units which, however, contain the same system connectors as the working LRIs to enable flight systems to be operated and tested,” the Eurofighter spokesman said.

A BAE spokeswoman said the first flight with a functioning radar on board would take place by the end of 2014.

That suggests the program is slipping. Last November, EADS announced that the final integration of the Captor-E into IPA5 was planned for this spring (EADS has since changed its name to Airbus). Now, the flight will take place after the partners sign their development contract, if that signing takes place midyear.

Cowdery said the contract from the four partner nations will cover some of the development costs that have been paid up front by industry since the launch of AESA radar development.

“Flying the radar will determine how much work there is left to do,” he said. “The integration and the development of modes comes next, but there has been a considerable level of development already achieved.”

Selex meanwhile has worked under a separate contract from the UK on special AESA features relevant to UK needs. That work would possibly continue, even if the four nations sign a development contract this summer, said Alastair Morrison, senior vice president for radar and advanced targeting at Selex, a multinational unit of Finmeccanica.

“The radar work that would be developed by the four nations covers about 80 percent of what the [British Royal Air Force] wants to do,” Morrison said.

The Captor-E will sit on a moving plate, or “repositioner,” giving it a 100-degree field of regard, as distinct from US AESA radars, which sit on a fixed plate. The advantage of a fixed plate, say US makers, is minimal maintenance.

But Morrison said the movement of the repositioner required by the Captor-E does not prompt a constant need for maintenance.

“It is a gentle, rhythmical movement compared to mechanically scanned radars, and the need for maintenance is not great,” he said. “US aircraft fitted with AESA like the F-16 have a smaller nose, and would not be able to fit a repositioner in any case.”

The Captor-E will contain about 1,500 transmit-receive modules, and Morrison said the Typhoon’s relatively large nose means it could hold a bigger array than the equivalent radar built by Thales for the Rafale, France’s twin-engine fighter.

“That means bigger range,” he said.

The Rafale’s advantage is that its radar is ready.

In February 2012, Thales delivered the first series-produced RBE2 AESA radar to Dassault, the Rafale’s builder. In October of that year, Dassault and Thales completed delivery of France’s Rafale C137, the first European combat aircraft equipped with an active phased array radar.

With a fixed plate, Thales says the radar’s front end needs maintenance once every 10 years.

If Selex is still waiting for the green light from the Eurofighter partners, it is moving fast to deliver Europe’s third fighter AESA radar — which uses about 1,000 transmit-receive modules — for mounting on the Gripen, Sweden’s single-engine fighter.

On Dec. 18, Sweden signed a deal with Saab, the country’s aerospace and defense giant, to modify 60 Gripen C fighters to the E standard, with a consequent contract with Selex for 60 AESA radars. The second flyable version is due to be delivered soon.

A further 22 radars will be ordered by Switzerland, should the country decide to order the Gripen.

The modules for the Typhoon radar, originally designed by EADS Cassidian, contain the same gallium arsenide components as the Gripen modules, albeit with different packaging, Morrison said. The Typhoon modules will be dual-sourced from Selex and Airbus Defence & Space.

Morrison said that talks had been held with the Swiss about offset work on the Gripen radar for Swiss companies, although Saab was handling the bulk of the talks.

Selex also is taking a secondary role in offset talks with Brazil, which has selected the Gripen as its next fighter jet.

“But we do have Brazilian partners in mind,” he said. ■

Andrew Chuter in London and Pierre Tran in Paris contributed to this report.

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