During the nearly two decades that the U.S. Army has been fighting terrorists and insurgents in Southwest Asia, other threats have been evolving steadily. The Trump administration’s national defense strategy identifies the danger posed by “near-peer” adversaries, meaning China and Russia, as now surpassing the terrorist threat in severity.
And with good reason. Extremist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda didn’t have armored vehicles, tactical aircraft or warships. Russia and China have all that, and more. In particular, they have a growing array of overhead systems against which the Army believes it is not adequately defended—everything from cruise missiles to unmanned drones to ballistic missiles to stealthy fighters.
Not surprisingly, the Army has identified air defense as one of its top modernization priorities. The service is developing an integrated air and missile defense architecture designed to counter all airborne and ballistic threats on the modern battlefield. The plan has many moving pieces, but in the near term no element is more important than fielding a new radar for its Patriot air defense system.
Patriot, built by the Raytheon Company—a contributor to my think tank—is the most widely used air defense system in the world, and its phased array radar is the heart of the system. In fact, the name “Patriot” is an acronym originally fashioned from the phrase, “Phased Array Tracking Radar Intercept On Target.” The modular, mobile system was first fielded during the Reagan years, and has seen repeated upgrades to its radar, missiles, communications links and other features as new technology became available.
As a result, Patriot remains the most reliable land-based air and missile defense system in the world today. But it isn’t today that the Army is worried about—it’s tomorrow when the overhead threat becomes much more deadly. The Army decided some time ago it needed a more advanced radar, one that could detect threats approaching from any direction at any altitude, even when the enemy is disguising its aircraft and trying to jam radar frequencies.
Now the Army wants to speed up the pace at which that new radar is being developed. It announced late last year that it would host a “sense-off” this spring at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico to test new radar concepts in an operational environment. The Army plans to select one or more designs for rapid prototyping, with an eye to achieving initial operational capability in 2022. That is lightning speed by traditional acquisition standards.
Raytheon, the builder of the current radar, is one of several offerors who will be showing up, as are Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. That is stiff competition even for Raytheon, a company that has been in the radar business since World War Two. So how does the Massachusetts-based tech giant hope to best its rivals?
The Raytheon strategy begins with gallium nitride (GaN) technology. GaN is a hard, glass-like substance with a crystalline structure that can move electrons a thousand times faster than the silicon traditionally used in computer chips. It can survive much higher temperatures and voltages than silicon, and it has high resistance to ionizing radiation. It is especially well-suited to use at the microwave frequencies where phased array radars such as Patriot operate.
Raytheon intends to use GaN technology throughout its next-generation air defense radar to maximize functionality while minimizing weight and volume. Other offerors presumably will too, since the Army has frequently highlighted its desire to exploit the technology. However, what differentiates Raytheon from the other offerors is that it began investing in GaN 20 years ago, when hardly anybody had heard of it. Over the intervening years it has spent $300 million developing a deep understanding of the technology, including building its own GaN foundry and a prototyping facility in New Hampshire that tests radar resilience and reliability in highly stressed conditions.
Today, the company is confident that it produces the highest quality GaN in the industry. Because it has its own domestic foundry, it is not dependent on merchant suppliers and its supply chain is completely secure. Company executives do not mince words in asserting that they have a world-class understanding of the exotic technology, and that they expect it will be the “heart and soul” of the radar system they bring to the Army’s sense-off.
That radar will not be an evolved version of the sensor that Raytheon is already building for Patriot. The company has elected to offer a completely new radar system that leverages all of the competencies the company has acquired in building radars not only for the Army, but for the rest of the joint force, for the Missile Defense Agency, and for a host of overseas allies. It will be modular, scalable, and flexible in a way no other air defense radar has ever been before.
But that’s about as far as the company will go in describing what it is developing. When pressed about details, Raytheon execs resort to metaphors, such as saying the new architecture will fit together “like Legos.” They know how they intend to do that, but they don’t want their competitors to know. So when they say their radar will have “no blind spots” and will ”expand the battlespace,” outsiders are left to speculate on what that means in terms of specifics.
For instance, Raytheon in recent years has become the world’s leading provider of advanced cybersecurity solutions, a strategy it pursued while competitors were scaling back in that space. What does that mean for the resilience of their radar in a hostile electromagnetic environment? They aren’t saying. Their competitors will probably find out at White Sands.
In a distinct departure from past practice, the Army is dictating relatively few features of the radars to be tested at the sense-off. Army planners say they want the companies that show up to have maximum latitude for demonstrating what cutting-edge technology can accomplish. There is a classified list of requirements that must be met, but the Army doesn’t want to put offerors in a straitjacket where it ends up telling them how to design their systems. The goal is to see some real creativity on the part of the rival companies. Raytheon is confident it will shine.