- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

Coverage of the war in Iraq, while dealing in broad strokes with some of the weaponry, has never really explained the technology. Modern weaponry gets incomprehensible fast, and much of it is classified.

Last week I was chatting with an electronics engineer from Lockheed-Martin who mentioned the phenomenal complexity of military equipment today.

Take the cat-and-mouse game of trying to stay ahead of potential enemy radar. (My friend worked in radar.) We’ve all seen radar in the movies in which the antenna rotates, sweeping 360 degrees with its beam as it turns. They are fine for many uses, but a lot of advanced military radars don’t work that way at all.

Instead there are “phased arrays.” These consist of a large number of small receiver-transmitters controlled by a computer. The first well-known phased-array was the SPY-1 radar used on the CG-47 class of anti-aircraft cruisers (such as the Vincennes, which mistakenly shot down an Iranian airliner in the first Gulf war.) By shifting the relative phase of the transmitted signals, the computer can “squirt” the radar beam in any direction. The antenna doesn’t move. The beam does.

This is important. If a fighter plane used an old mechanical radar, an enemy could easily hear the regular buzz-buzz-buzz as the radar beam swept back and forth.

By contrast, the phased-array can “squirt” its beam at the enemy at random intervals. The enemy is thus less likely to realize that he has been detected. It can use the minimum power to follow the enemy, and only “visit” the target with a beam when it needs to.

A sophisticated military radar will also use “frequency agility,” which means that the radar signal hops from frequency to frequency many times a second. This makes it even harder for the enemy to notice, or to jam it.

To jam a radar operating on one frequency, you can transmit a lot of electronic noise at that frequency. This doesn’t require much power. But if the enemy radar transmits unpredictably over a range of frequencies, then you have to jam the whole range.

The movies like to show swirling dogfights because they are exciting. Actually, most aircraft don’t see the enemy that shot them down. This is one reason why the Air Force emphasizes stealth. It lets the pilot get within missile range of the enemy without being detected. As my engineer buddy put it, “We want the other guy to blow up in a relaxed manner.”

The thought and complex engineering that go into these things are seldom recognized. For example, an advanced American fighter can recognize automatically the kind of aircraft the enemy is flying. The technology is called “non-cooperative target recognition” and relies on computerized recognition of such things as the characteristics of the enemy’s radar.

The computer also knows the range of the enemy’s radar. However, the range of a radar isn’t as simple at it sounds. When an airplane flies directly at an enemy radar, all the radar can see is the nose of the aircraft and the edge of its wings. These don’t reflect much of the enemy radar signal. As the aircraft turns, it exposes more area to the radar, which can therefore see it more easily.

The computer takes this into account. On the pilot’s display, a “fan,” like a pie slice, may be shown coming from the enemy plane. Its length changes to take into account the amount of reflecting surface the American plane is exposing to the enemy. If the American craft comes within the fan, the pilot knows he has been detected. A similar fan is shown coming from his plane, showing the range of his missiles. Thus he can maneuver to destroy the enemy without being seen.

Designing the equipment to do this takes a lot of brains, money, research and technology. But it works. The people involved ought to get credit.

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