One of the most powerful and versatile air-defense radars in the world (the Australian JORN or Jindalee Operational Radar Network) has completed another round of upgrades and became fully operational earlier this year. Work now continues on still more upgrades, which will begin in a few years. These will concentrate on making the system hardware, especially the computers, easier to upgrade. New computer hardware is constantly appearing and the ability to quickly take advantage of that is essential to keeping JORN effective and affordable. Meanwhile more details of exactly what JORN can, and cannot do, are becoming available.
JORN is a network of two large radars in northern Australia and a development radar in central Australia. Data from all three is combined and processed at another air force base in southern Australia. Details of JORN capabilities have always been secret, but more has been revealed this year as the upgrade was completed and the system has apparently performed well. Max range of JORN is about 3,000 kilometers, and minimum range is a thousand kilometers. The upgrades covered a lot of hardware and software issues but it was no secret that the main improvement was to increase the speed with which data was processed and quickly provide a more accurate picture of what is out there. The key to the system has always been software that enabled a weak return signal to be accurately identified. Thus, even stealth aircraft can be spotted by JRON.
Radars of this type are nothing new and have been around for decades. Thus it was no secret that more powerful computers and more efficient software are the key to getting the most out of these systems. Since Australia is a trusted ally of the United States it was believed that the Americans were sharing much of what they had already developed in this area. In addition Australia was using some of the same American firms that had worked on these systems for the U.S. Department of Defense. Cheaper and more powerful computers for JORN were known to be a major part of the upgrade, if only because of the complaints in Australia of the shortage of hardware and software engineers (Australian or otherwise) to get the JORN work done. The recruiting ads for engineers to work on JORN revealed much (at least to other engineers) about what JORN was being upgraded to. The Australian economy has been booming for over two decades (in large part because of the Chinese demand for raw materials) and Australian has had a chronic labor shortage, especially of engineers and others with technical skills. This has hit the Australian military particularly hard, because they can’t hire many foreigners and they have to compete with civilian firms that offer higher pay and better working conditions.
It has also become known that JORN is expensive to operate, especially since it uses a lot of electricity. For that reason Australia admits that it does not have JORN on 24/7, but keeps the system in good shape so that it can be operated at full power for weeks or months at a time as needed. The upgrade also made the development radar in central radar as capable as the two production models in the north, thus giving the system the ability to operate with one radar down for maintenance.
JORN can spot military ships and aircraft at long distances and most the time there are few of either in the vast water areas north of the island continent. Australia also admits that JORN cannot spot people smugglers operating in slow moving wooden ships. Meanwhile the United States has been working with Australia to integrate JORN into a world-wide anti-ballistic missile defense system.
Australian scientists and engineers designed and built this unique, over the horizon, system using the technique of bouncing radar signals off the ionosphere. Development began in the early 1990s. Costing over a billion dollars to build, it became partially operational in 2002. Since then new capabilities were added while all the original capabilities were gradually brought online.
The system was designed to provide coverage for Australia's northern coast, which is largely uninhabited, but also vulnerable to smugglers, illegal migrants, or armed invaders. JORN can be reconfigured to search for ships as well, and has been used in this way to spot larger ships trying to bring in illegal migrants. JORN is operated by the Royal Australian Air Force.