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The Great Radar War Begins

AESA-rayth.jpg

Boeing is expected by the end of this week to select a manufacturer to upgrade the US Air Force F-15 fleet with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.

Vying for this contract are Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, but no matter who wins Boeing's protest-proof selection (take that, GAO) will be sure to set off the first Great Radar War.

The idea driving this industrial war is this: the power of a fighter aircraft's radar may now be as important in combat as the power of its engine.

In the early 1980s, Pratt & Whitney and General Electric fought every year for their share of the USAF's fighter engine budget. The rivalry was so intense it was chronicled in a book called the Great Engine War.

That same industrial phenomenon has started to appear in the radar market. The contract for the F-15 radar modernization will be the first of several to come.

Both Raytheon and Northrop are designing new active arrays for the F-16 in anticipation of foreign buyers (hello, India?) and eventually the USAF.

And I'll bet you a quarter and a coke that the war will extend even to the grand prize of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. In 2001, Raytheon was on Boeing's X-32 team, so Northrop's design for the X-35 is on the program today. But if the USAF can re-open the F-15's radar selection to competition, Raytheon is going to fight to take another shot at the F-35 program.

You can also safely bet that the USAF will think about radar interchangeablility when creating the requirements for the Next-Generation Long Range Strike fleet, which should enter service after 2018.

The Great Radar War will have profound implications for both industry and for the fighter community. For the first time, operators may actually have a choice of radars like they already do for engines. By implication, neither Raytheon nor Northrop can rest anymore after winning the initial contract, but must continually refresh its technology to stay in the chase for new contracts.

(Photo: Raytheon)

-- Steve Trimble

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