Preserving UK radar capability and guaranteeing export potential are emerging as key factors in the three-way competition to win the UK Ministry of Defence's £750 million Airborne Stand-Off Radar (ASTOR) programme. All three teams stepped up lobbying efforts at Farnborough, with heavy emphasis on the implications of the competition for the UK's radar industry.

Lockheed Martin, the only bidder to offer a UK-developed radar, revealed that its solution will use an active phased-array antenna. If selected, the Racal-developed radar would be the first airborne active array system to enter production in the UK. Racal acknowledges that the transmit/receive modules making up the array will be supplied from the USA by Raytheon, to reduce risk, but says they could be replaced later in the ASTOR's life with UK-developed modules.

Northrop Grumman is also offering an active-array solution, based on the Radar Techology Improvement Programme (RTIP) for the US Air Force Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), but does not yet have a UK radar partner as the only suitable companies, Marconi and Racal, are tied exclusively to the other teams. The US manufacturer has had talks with both UK companies and says they are "eager" to become its radar partner, if their own bids fail.

Raytheon Systems' bid is based around the existing (formerly Hughes) ASARS-2 radar from the Lockheed U-2, incorporating improvements being developed for the US Air Force and a passive electronically scanned antenna to be developed in the UK by Marconi. The US company says that this is a "proven, low risk" solution which can be updated later in the ASTOR's life with an active array antenna, if required.

Northrop Grumman, which was allowed controversially to re-enter the ASTOR competition with an RTIP-based bid after the UK rejected the basic JSTARS, came under attack from its rivals for offering a high-risk solution. The company says it expects to be under contract "within the next couple of weeks" with the USAF for the six-year, $750 million RTIP development programme. Its ASTOR bid includes a US Government offer of UK participation in the programme "-up to 50% of the value of the ASTOR radar."

Racal argues that selecting either of the other bids will harm the UK's radar industry, and waste its substantial investment in stand-off radar technology. As well as potential export sales of the ASTOR platform, the company says it plans to build the active-array, synthetic-aperture radar and moving-target indication technnology into future versions of its Searchwater 2000 surveillance radar.

Northrop Grumman counters that the scale of UK participation in the RTIP would guarantee its involvement in so-called "noble work" on the radar.

Source: Flight International