Ukraine provides key lessons for missile defense radar on the battlefieldStory
February 09, 2024
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 kicked off a new era of modern warfare. Drone strikes, hypersonic missiles, and the use of a wide spectrum of other weapons introduced the world to new threats on the battlefield. Radar systems are stretching their limits to keep up.
The war in Ukraine gives the defense industry a glimpse into how it must adapt radar systems to meet modern threats such as hypersonic missiles. Industry experts are learning lessons that may fundamentally change the way they develop radar systems in the future.
For the defense industry, Ukraine is a case study in the application and evolution of battlefield radar in modern warfare. As warfare becomes increasingly complex with the advent of new technologies and tactics, the role of radar systems in providing situational awareness and threat detection is more critical than ever.
The Ukraine war demonstrates the challenges of modern-day warfare that companies must design radar to solve, notes a Raytheon (Arlington, Virginia) spokesperson. “Airspace is congested and contested, with multiple, highly maneuverable threats traveling at various speeds and coming from all directions. For air defenders, situational awareness is critical and must be more responsive than ever.”
Raytheon’s Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS) for the U.S. Army is designed to detect and counter advanced threats – like hypersonic weapons – and is equipped with three antenna arrays for 360-degree coverage in order to identify and engage multiple threats simultaneously. It is part of the company’s GhostEye family of radars.
Lothar Belz, head of public relations for Hensoldt (Taufkirchen, Germany), which supplies radars used in air defense systems sent to Ukraine, says his company has received “excellent operational feedback from Ukrainian stakeholders” that indicates they value mobility, extremely short reaction times, and resilience against electronic countermeasures (ECM).
Electronic warfare (EW) and battlefield radar have been critical in neutralizing diverse threats, says Dinesh Jain, product manager at Abaco Systems (Huntsville, Alabama). The conflict in Ukraine demonstrates how important it is to effectively differentiate between friend and foe, evolve strategies, and respond effectively to sensor inputs, he adds.
“A deeper dive into numerous public reports of attacks, defenses, and counteroffenses points to the immense importance that electronic warfare and battlefield radar plays in neutralizing threats to protect civilians, resources, and infrastructure,” Jain continues. (Figure 1.)
Sensor fusion, the integration of data from various sources, and the networking of different radar systems are crucial components in modern warfare because they improve situational awareness and enable troops to respond more effectively, Jain continues.
The networking of radar systems, as observed in Ukraine, enables distributed sensing over a broader area, Jain continues: “Networking allows radar systems to be spread out in different areas as opposed to concentrated in a smaller area, reducing the risk of a targeted strike that completely neutralizes a defense asset.”
[Figure 1 ǀ Abaco Systems’ VP461: 6U VPX with dual RFSoC and DSP processing with 16 x 16 wideband RF channel synchronization.]
Missile threats expanding
Ground troops face a growing array of missile threats that must be countered by today’s defense systems. The evolution of missile technology presents new risks on the battlefield – and radar must keep up in order to protect those troops.
Troops have to worry about all the traditional threats, such as anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), and air-to-surface missiles, but they also now have to contend with guided ammunition, armed drones, and hypersonic missiles, Belz says.
“Of course, the ‘non-missile’ threats [such as] small arms, artillery, mines which pose specific challenges to early warning and detection have not disappeared,” he adds.
There’s growing concern about the dynamic trajectory of hypersonic missiles, Jain says. These weapons operate at high speeds and are highly maneuverable, making it a challenge for current defense systems to engage them – or even for traditional radar to be able to spot them.
“There is some debate about how sophisticated this specific missile really is, but it made clear that there is a gap in being able to defend against these types of threats as nations continue to invest in advanced missile technology designed to evade battlefield radar,” he says.
Advancements in radar technology
To match these threats, the defense industry is making big investments in radar technology, focusing on enhancing threat detection, tracking capabilities, and overall battlefield awareness.
Raytheon’s LTAMDS system is aimed at improving the range and sensitivity of U.S. Army radars so it can better counter advanced threats – such as drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles. It uses three antenna arrays, with the primary in the front and two secondaries in the back.
“Working together, they can detect and engage multiple threats from any direction simultaneously,” the Raytheon spokesperson says. “Raytheon uses active electronically scanned array, or AESA, technology and military-grade gallium nitride, or GaN, made at its foundry in Andover, Massachusetts, to strengthen the LTAMDS radar signal and enhance its sensitivity for longer range, higher resolution, and more capacity.”
The high-performance signal processing subsystems for the LTAMDS are provided by Mercury Systems, Inc. (Andover, Massachusetts). The company recently signed a three-year subcontract to deliver hardware to Raytheon for the next nine LTAMDS radars to support the U.S. Army and Poland, the first international LTAMDS customer, according to a Mercury Systems release.
Belz says Hensoldt is focused on increasing the versatility in radar systems to counter a wider range of targets. He points out that modern radars must reduce exposure to enemy detection and ensure interoperability with various legacy systems, which they can achieve through the digitization of radar functionalities, the integration of passive sensors, and the use of open architectures.
“Together with other improvements, the trend goes to multifunctional systems offering detection, electronic warfare, and networking capabilities in one system,” Belz says. (Figure 2.)
Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) could also be game-changers, Jain says, using the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Missile Defense Agency’s Glide Phase Interceptor (GPI) program as an example. The GPI program aims to develop a missile-defense system capable of destroying hypersonic projectiles during their challenging pre-impact phase, and it is thought that AI could be useful for improving tracking and decision-making.
“In addition to the general progression of high-speed, wideband data converters, sensor fusion, higher-speed data buses, and higher-density processing through advanced silicon packaging techniques, AI/ML at the edge is a new tool that is being leveraged to build more sophisticated radar systems,” he says.
The role of open architecture
Designing sophisticated radars and upgrading current systems will be enabled by open architectures and open standards like the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA). A modular open systems approach (MOSA) marks a paradigm shift from traditional, closed-system developments to more flexible, modular, and adaptable frameworks. Open architectures enable faster integration of commercial innovation reducing long-term life cycle costs.
Open systems make it easier for the defense industry “rapidly upgrade capabilities to counter emerging future threats,” the Raytheon spokesperson says.
Belz notes that ease of integration is key to continually improving radar systems, which is where open standards can make a big difference. “Open architectures are essential to build up distributed defense systems with all the elements – sensors, comms devices, weapons – feeding (and using) actionable intelligence from the whole network,” he adds.
[Figure 2 ǀ Hensoldt's TRML-4D is a multifunctional air surveillance and target acquisition radar system used in Ukraine.]
The move toward open systems represents not just a technological shift but also a strategic one. It enables a more collaborative approach to defense technology development in which different vendors can contribute components that seamlessly integrate into a larger system. This means that the military can take advantage of advancements in the commercial arena, Jain says.
“One of the other lessons learned from [Ukraine] is the importance of advanced computer processing to run complex software and firmware to manage the sheer amount of data being generated by radar sensors and extract relevant intelligence,” he says. “Leveraging the economies of scale provided by commercial silicon vendors and adapting it into standards-based form factors [can help with] implementing increasingly complex threat-detection algorithms using AI/ML, rapid system upgrades, and time to deployment.”