Radar for military vehicles is unveiled Small Northrop device developed in Linthicum scans battlefields

October 16, 1997|By Greg Schneider | Greg Schneider,SUN STAFF

The problem with battlefields -- other than widespread death and dismemberment -- is that they're cluttered. Tanks and trucks have a tough time seeing through dust, smoke or rain even with infrared scopes.

Now the local division of Northrop Grumman Corp. has developed what it says is the first radar system small, cheap and advanced enough to give military ground vehicles the same kind of eagle eyes that only aircraft have today.

The Electronic Sensors & Systems Division unveiled the battlefield scanning radar at an Army trade show in Washington this week.

After building some of the most sophisticated radars flying, "the question was always, 'Why don't we do something like this for ground vehicles?' " said William H. Forster, vice president of the division's Land Combat Systems unit. "Now we have the chance to do it."

The chance came almost by accident. Back when it was part of Westinghouse, the Linthicum plant began developing a new type of radar antenna for the Army's Comanche helicopter. That program took a heavy cut in funds, and the Pentagon suspended the radar portion.

Westinghouse used its own money to continue the research, as did Northrop Grumman after buying the facility last year. Engineers decided to make the antenna a bit smaller and cheaper to accommodate vehicles.

Four years and almost $5 million in company money later, Forster said, the system is ready for testing. Just last week, researchers fired it up for the first time at the company's test facility next to Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

Forster said the results were better than expected -- it picked up planes landing and taking off, even though it was set for stationary targets.

The radar works in all types of weather and cuts through smoke or dust, he said, unlike the infrared sensors now used on military ground vehicles.

"This is not new physics," Forster emphasized. The system, called Electronically Scanned Array XXI, is cobbled together from a variety of components, all tested and proven. The antenna is VTC from the Comanche, the operating technology is from the Longbow system that the company developed for Apache helicopters, and the radar itself is a commercial weather unit.

The trick was assembling it and devising ways to manufacture it cheaply. "The young guys working on this have picked up about 19 patents," Forster said -- mostly in manufacturing techniques.

To make it affordable for the Army to buy in bulk, the division set a target cost of $150,000 per unit. They haven't hit that mark yet, but Forster said the goal could be reached if the radar was mass produced.

Part of the relatively low cost comes from using new commercial technology. One particular component that helps shape the radar beam once cost $40, and Northrop Grumman now gets the gizmo for about 10 cents.

There can be 6,400 of them in a single radar unit.

The antenna for the radar is a flat rectangle 16 inches across. Unlike a traditional dish that revolves, sweeping the radar beam like the beacon from a lighthouse, this unit sits still while the beam scans electronically.

The smaller size, lighter weight and greater versatility gained from that type of scanning could be ideal for ground vehicles, said Christopher Foss, military technology editor for Jane's Defence Weekly.

"For certain types of land platforms, this would be very, very useful to give you that long-range system you presently lack," Foss said.

He said the system's best customer could be a scout vehicle being developed jointly for U.S. and British forces. The two industry teams seeking the vehicle contract are talking with Northrop Grumman about putting the new system on their entry, he said.

The company also wants to explore using the system in tanks, with the goal of testing it on a vehicle within a year.

Leland Ness, a military consultant in Alexandria, Va., said the Army has wondered about putting radar on tanks for 20 years. The problem, he said, is that radars don't offer the accuracy you need to fire the tank's gun; they're better suited for surveillance.

"It's a question of do you want to spend that kind of money on a tank for something that doesn't directly contribute to killing the enemy," he said.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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