ROME — As the market grows for infrared search and track (IRST) sensors that can function like radars on fighters, one American firm has signed a deal with a European counterpart that will bring to the US infrared technologies already honed on the Eurofighter.
Northrop Grumman has launched a partnership with Italian firm Selex ES under which Selex's infrared know-how will enter the US and possibly be turned around for export products for Foreign Military Sales customers.
"Selex has partnered with Northrop Grumman to bring IRST to the US," a Northrop Grumman spokeswoman told Defense News, adding that further details on the applications for new IRST products would be announced in May.
The deal pushes into the US market the technology Selex has worked on for the Eurofighter's PIRATE (passive infrared airborne tracking equipment) sensor, for the European Neuron UCAV technology demonstrator, and, most recently, for Sweden's Gripens.
One US analyst said that IRST had not received much attention from the Pentagon over the past few decades.
"The US has lagged on development after getting a strong start in the 1980s when Lockheed Martin put a system on F-14s," said David Rockwell, senior electronics analyst at the Teal Group. "The US dropped back for 20 years, but IRST is potentially a huge market," he added.
"There was a requirement for IRST on the F-22 but the program was cut due to lack of funding, while the IR sensor that Northrop Grumman has put on the F-35 is 360 degrees without an equivalent long-range search-and-track sensor," he said.
The 500-pound pod carries the firm's IRST21 sensor, which was approved for low-rate initial production on the Navy's F/A-18 Super Hornet in January.
A Lockheed official has said the pod-to-pod communication allowed by its Legion pod could also facilitate communication between newer and older fighters.
"If they enter the market, Northrop Grumman and Selex could benefit if the US wants competition, but today Lockheed has the market sewn up. However, it is unlikely Northrop will benefit from the same combination of market factors — including immediate needs after 9/11 — that made Litening successful in the US," he added.
On the other hand, Rockwell said there could be a large market for adding pods to existing fighters around the world, just as US firms are now marketing active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar upgrades for fighters.
Selex has meanwhile worked on the PIRATE air-to-air sensor for the Eurofighter, which can act as an IR camera or a passive radar operating in the 8-12 micrometers IR band.
Other contracts have followed. The firm built an air-to-ground IRST sensor for the European Neuron UCAV and a sensor for the Turkish Navy in 2012. The Italian Navy has requested a multiheaded version of an IRST for its new multifunctional vessels. A version is already on board Italy's Cavour carrier.
This month, Saab awarded Selex a production contract to supply 60 Skyward-G IRST systems for its Gripen E fleet, and Selex is also expected to supply the system to go on board Brazil's Gripens.
Meanwhile, the firm is waiting for an order to upgrade the PIRATE sensor on Eurofighters.
The Skyward system, which weighs 40 kilograms and consumes about 380 kilowatts of power, projects images onto the plane's head up display.
Likely to interest Northrop is Selex's parallel work on a pod version for use on existing aircraft.
Tom Kington is the Italy correspondent for Defense News.