Electronic Weapons: It's The Software, Stupid


March 18, 2007: The U.S. Navy was eagerly looking forward to using the new APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar in its carrier based F-18Fs. The radar was ready to go, but the software wasn't. The H3 version of the software installed with the APG-79 last Summer, turned out to have some problems. The biggest ones were the delays in locking on targets (several seconds, which it should be less than second) and diagnostics that didn't. There is a new version of the software, H4, that is being tested to make sure the earlier problems were all fixed.

AESA systems consist of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. This makes it possible, for a sufficiently powerful AESA radar, to focus enough energy to damage aircraft or missiles. The U.S. has already been doing this with the high-powered microwave (HPM) effects generated by similar AESA radars used in F14, F35 and F22 aircraft. The APG-79 can also be used to deceive the radars of enemy missiles or aircraft, and detect stealthy targets at long ranges (200 kilometers or more.)

AESA type radars have been around a long time, popular mainly for their ability deal with lots of targets simultaneously. But AESAs ability to focus a concentrated beam of radio energy, that can scramble electronic components of a distant target, are becoming a more practical capability. This is sort of like the EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) put out by nuclear weapons.

In addition to AESA radars installed in newly built F-18s, older F-18s will get the APG-79 radar installed as an upgrade. It will take about seven years to get some 400 AESA equipped F-18Fs into service. While the main reason for using AESA is to better track separate targets simultaneously, and with better accuracy, the navy, like the air force, is intent on improving and exploiting the electronic warfare aspect of this radar as well. However, the electronic warfare angle depends a lot on the system software, and, in the case of the APG-79, software proved to be the weakest link.


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