Thursday, October 14, 2010

MP-RTIP Technology for Ground Surveillance Planes?

The E-10A aircraft sought to combine the functions of 707-based E-3 AWACS aerial surveillance and command aircraft and E-8 JSTARS ground surveillance planes, all packaged in a single 767-400 jet. Advances in modern electronics made the project thinkable, but budgetary constraints killed it in early 2007, leaving the USA’s existing fleets to soldier on. E-10A had 2 key technologies. One was an updated Battle Management Command and Control (BMC2) mission suite that would be used as the aircraft’s nerve center. The other was the MP-RTIP (Multi-Platform Radar Technology Insertion Program) wide-scan AESA radar, which saw a smaller-size version deployed in the RQ-4B Global Hawk fleet.

The USA’s 17-plane E-8C JSTARS fleet has been an invaluable contributor to every US military ground campaign over the last 15+ years, receiving both system upgrades and a re-engining program, in order to improve aircraft readiness and operating costs. Now, there seems to be a glimmer of light with respect to its radar capabilities as well.

All E-8 Joint STARS aircraft are assigned to the Georgia Air National Guard’s 116th Air Control Wing, a “total-force blended wing” with active-duty Air Force, Army and Air National Guard personnel. The 116th is based at Robins Air Force Base, GA.

Adding BMC2 to existing aircraft would involve substantial rewiring and other “deep maintenance” work, but adding the MP-RTIP radar in place of the existing AN/APY-7 is less difficult. Northrop Grumman has been pressing for an E-8C radar upgrade that would leverage their worth of work on MP-RTIP and improve E-8 scan resolution by a factor of 5x-10x. If the E-8 is not modified, it will leave Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4B Block 40 Gloal Hawk UAV as the sole focus for a cut-down version of that technology.

Since December 2000, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have been teamed for the design, development and production of MP-RTIP, and development of MP-RTIP continues under a $1.2 billion program. Its X-band Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar uses beam steering that can couple electronic and mechanical options. Specifics will depend on the platform and payload space, and antenna size can be tailored accordingly.

As of the end of May 2009, MP-RTIP was behind its original schedule, and had not tested its most advanced variants. While the basic synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and ground moving target indications (GMTI) have finished testing, technical glitches tok their toll. Due to issues with radar calibration, about 376 hours and 64 flights with Scaled Composites’ Proteus vehicle had been needed to iron out radar system level performance verification (RSLPV) on these basic modes, out of a total of 1,063 hours and 186 flights as of May 2009.

Remaining modes include ground high-range resolution (HRR) and concurrent moving-target indicator (MTI) modes. The HRR/c-MTI combination leverages the advantages of AESA technology and improved processing, in order to field a substantially improved SAR/GMTI ground radar scan. Ground HRR allows more precise measurement of a target’s length, while concurrent MTI does not force the radar to suspend collection in other modes while MTI is running. Some sources add that MP-RTIP will also have aerial MTI capability, which would give it the ability to find other UAVs and cruise missiles.

US Air Force officials hope that work on the concurrent modes will be finished in summer 2009, with verification testing concluding in the fall. After that, the sensor will be integrated with Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk Block 40 UAV.

To learn more about the history of this program, click here.

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