Future US jamming systems may be able to react in real-time to counter unfamiliar radar signals under the Adaptive Radar Countermeasures (ARC) programme, a $13.3 million contract awarded to BAE Systems last month by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Early versions of the jamming technology could become available as a software and firmware upgrade for US fighters after 2018, says John Tranquilli, technical director for signals and communications processing at BAE.
That makes ARC a potential player in the constant struggle for supremacy of the radio frequency spectrum in an electronic war stretching back decades between radars and jamming systems.
Jamming systems still rely on classified databases of known emitter signals. As radars emit energy, an onboard receiver characterises the incoming signal and and compares it against the database of threats. If there's a match, the system develops a pre-determined countermeasure that can be used to jam that signal.
But adversaries now have easy access to more advanced processes that can create radars that are not statically defined, Tranquilli tells FlightGlobal. The ARC programme uses BAE’s cognitive electronic warfare technology, including advanced signal processing and machine learning techniques. Those technologies would allow ARC to identify even those dynamic, virus-like radars across the frequency spectrum and form a countermeasure.
The terms BAE uses in describing ARC, such as "artificial intelligence" and "machine-learning algorithms", evoke start-ups in Silicon Valley, attempting to connect mobile application users to the most convenient product or service.
But the machine learning techniques employed in ARC face a higher bar in the realm of electronic warfare.
“People do a lot of low-stakes applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence, but that is very different from our world where lives are on the line,” Tranquilli says. “That’s one of the big things we have to work through is bringing new capability in without bringing risks based on the ability to adapt and be cognitive.”
ARC isn’t just designed for next-generation platforms. When DARPA began refining their concept around 2013, their vision included a transition path for ARC onto existing electronic warfare systems. At the same time, BAE has been investing internal funding and research on creating new software and hardware that could be hosted on legacy systems, Tranquilli says.
“Obviously when we’re talking about machine-learning algorithms and advanced signal processing, that takes some horsepower to do,” he says. “In the EW space for radar countermeasures, in the electronic protection for communication systems domains, we’ve done a lot of work to create adaptive algorithms that are extremely optimized so that they can live on the existing systems that we make today while also being scalable.”
While Tranquilli could not discuss specific platforms where ARC would be applicable, the company is working with several platform partners on that transition plan once the DARPA program funding ends in 2018. BAE already supplies the ALR-74 suite on the Lockheed Martin F-22 and the ASQ-239 system on the F-35. Last week, the US Air Force also awarded Boeing a $479 million contract to begin integrating BAE's Eagle Passive Active Warning Survivability System (EPAWSS) on 400 F-15Es and F-15Cs.
By 2019, ARC should reach a technology readiness level 6, meaning the adaptive system will be able to overcome a broad range of advanced radar threats in real time. As part of Phase 2 of the programme, BAE has already demonstrated ARC’s ability to understand and counter threats on the fly in a closed-loop test environment. Still, it will take several years to integrate ARC onto specific platforms, Tranquilli adds.