ISRAEL & IN FOCUS: AESA radar emerges from US export shadow

Tel Aviv
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Since 1949, the US government has devoted $70.5 billion in military grants to Israel, including $3.1 billion in FY2014 alone, according to a report last year by the Congressional Research Service.

This largesse provided is not completely without strings attached. Although the USA has never explicitly banned Israel from exporting weapons of a certain kind to certain customers, the annual, voluntary donation to Israel’s military budget means it doesn’t always have to enact a law to get its point across.

Nowhere in Israel’s aerospace industry has the USA’s implied export restrictions had more effect than the airborne radar sector.

Only a few countries in the world possess the technology to produce a modern, electronically scanned fire control radar. The Elta Systems division of Israel Aerospace Industries, founded in 1967, is one of the rare radar houses capable of competing with the best American, Russian and European systems.

Attempts to capitalise on this capability has several times been rebuffed by Israel’s military patrons in the USA. In 2000, the US government pressured Israel into reneging on a signed contract to supply Phalcon airborne early warning radar to China.

More recently, Israel was obliged in 2011 to withhold export of EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI)/Lockheed Martin FA-50, even though the USA itself at that time prohibited Northrop Grumman from offering a competing system called the Scaleable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). South Korea instead acquired the Elta EL/M-2032, a mechanically scanned radar of a previous vintage of technology.

But something has happened in the past year to break a perceived US block on the export of Israel’s AESA technology. Either the USA has loosened its policy, or Israel has found applications for AESA radar that do not threaten the strategic or industrial interests of its military benefactor.

IAI executives have confirmed to Flightglobal that the X-band EL/M-2052 AESA radar for fighters is not only for sale, but has been sold to two export customers.

“It’s in production for two foreign customers,” says Igo Licht, director of sales and marketing for Elta.

Licht declines to identify the customers or fighter types involved in the sales contracts. IAI has described the EL/M-2052 as generally suitable for single-engined aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-16, Northrop F-5, Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, IAI Kfir Block 60 and the Hindustan Aeronautics Tejas light combat aircraft.

The applications involved in the first two export deals appear to fall on the low end of the fighter market. The key enabling technology of the AESA radar is the transmitter/receiver (T/R) module. The Northrop APG-77, for example, is packed with more than 1,500 T/R modules, making the F-22’s radar among the most powerful AESA systems.

Licht described the export versions of the EL/M-2052 now in production as having two different sizes. One is equipped with “something like 512” T/R modules. The other export customer has “a little more than 300” T/R modules, as the antenna “was adapted to the nose of the fighter”.

Israel has pursued AESA radar technology for fighter aircraft at a great expense, despite the absence of a domestic market. The US government prohibited Israel from installing AESA radar on the F-16I fighter, which is instead equipped with the mechanically scanned APG-68(V)9 radar. Likewise, Lockheed will deliver the F-35A in 2016 with the same Northrop APG-81 radar supplied to other customers.

Elta, however, has invested heavily to stay competitive, with domestic foundries producing “thousands” of T/R modules every year, Licht says.

“We have in Elta very significant experience in [electronically scanned array] radars,” he says.

The investment has paid off well beyond the fighter aircraft market. Elta is producing electronically scanned radars in a variety of configurations, including conformal early warning radars, ground-based missile and projectile defence systems, and electronic warfare systems, he says.

Applications for electronically-scanned antennas are growing now in the maritime domain. The company is currently developing a maritime patrol radar for unmanned and manned patrol aircraft.

The EL/M-2022ES features a radar array that combines mechanical scanning in azimuth and electronic scanning in elevation.

“From the point of view of weight, price and other aircraft resources, for maritime surveillance it’s not very cost-effective to have a fully electronically scanned radar,” Licht says.

In a fighter aircraft, electronic scanning is essential. A previous generation of mechanically scanned array radar has difficulty in remaining locked on to targets that are moving rapidly while its own aircraft is also manoeuvring aggressively.

The operational dynamics of maritime surveillance are very different, and usually involve stable platforms and relatively slow-moving or even stationary targets.

At the same time, some customers have pushed radar companies to incorporate electronically scanned arrays in maritime patrol radars.

“It brings some [benefits] with electronically-scanned in elevation, especially when you have enough processing power to apply very sophisticated algorithms which enable you to squeeze the last possible ounce of performance,” Licht says.

Another benefit of electronic scanning in elevation is that it simplifies the construction of the antenna, Licht says. The radar has to be designed to move only in a single dimension – a clockwise motion.

The EL/M-2022ES will be able to detect and track up to 1,000 targets, he adds.

“We detect things like a periscope at 1m2 [1,550in2] at around 30nm [56km],” Licht says. “Larger targets we can see to the horizon or 100nm.”

Elta is currently adapting the software for the EL/M-2022ES, which will begin test flights in the second half of 2014. Deliveries should begin in 2015 or 2016, Licht says.