Powerful New Raytheon Radar Gives Navy Better Defense Against Ballistic, Hypersonic Threats
This week the U.S. Navy League held its annual Sea Air Space Exposition near the nation’s capital, highlighting recent advances in maritime warfighting technology. With over 300 exhibitors, there was a lot to see. The most important new system on display, though, may have been the SPY-6 radar that Raytheon has been developing for the Navy since 2013.
SPY-6V1, as it is officially designated, is unlike any air and missile defense radar that has come before. Using gallium nitride technology and modular design concepts, Massachusetts-based Raytheon has created a sensor that is infinitely scalable for any defensive role, delivering gains in performance that would have been unimaginable a generation ago.
The basic building block of SPY-6 is called a “radar modular assembly.” It is a self-contained radar in a two-foot cube that can easily be connected with other cubes to form an array of any size. The more cubes you add, the more power can be applied to a problem. The Navy’s latest version of its multi-mission Arleigh Burke-class destroyer will have four arrays for 360-degree protection, each containing 37 cubes.
Because gallium nitride technology enables much higher power densities than previous technologies, the resulting array is 100 times more sensitive than the SPY-1 radar currently in use for overhead defense on Navy destroyers. It didn’t have to be that powerful—the Navy was looking for a 30-fold gain—but Raytheon built in an extra margin of capability that will enable the new destroyers to see over three times farther than the current radar.
The Navy is so pleased with the new radar that it is looking to backfit it onto many destroyers already at sea, and install it on aircraft carriers, amphibious warships and a new frigate. Because the destroyers already at sea have less space for each of their four radar arrays, only 24 radar modular assemblies can be used per array. But the SPY-6 system is so capable that even with the smaller number of assemblies, it still delivers a 30-fold gain in capability over existing radars.
The carriers, amphibs and frigates will get smaller arrays, but nonetheless see a leap in distance and discrimination over what was previously available. And that’s before you consider the networking features that Raytheon has engineered into the system, so that radars on vessels scattered across vast expanses of ocean can cooperate in detecting, tracking and targeting threats. This will enable them to maximize the effectiveness of a new generation of interceptor missiles (also built by Raytheon).
I should note that I would barely be aware of SPY-6 were it not for an excellent story about the new radar written by Jason Sherman of Inside Defense on May 3. When I read Sherman’s piece I immediately sought an interview with Raytheon, a contributor to my think tank. I ended up talking with Paul Ferraro, the company’s VP for sea power capability systems in its Integrated Defense Systems unit.
Ferraro discussed SPY-6 with the relaxed familiarity of a fellow who knows he has a winning product. He explained that the 100-fold gain in sensitivity of the full-up array to be installed on the newest Burke destroyers translates into 3.2 times greater range than existing radar. That increased range can be vital when dealing with fast-moving threats such as ballistic missiles and hypersonic glide weapons, because defenders need time to sort out which assets are best positioned to engage particular targets. Every step of the “kill-chain” will be automated, but the more warning defenders have, the better their prospects are for prevailing.
Ferraro described how Raytheon has built flexibility into every facet of SPY-6 technology so that arrays are not only infinitely expansible, but also can easily be upgraded for decades to come. The two-foot cubes can be inserted or extracted from an array with minimal effort, and the overall array can be integrated with any combat system currently operated by the U.S. Navy or allied navies.
The main constraint on exploiting the new technology is the availability of power and cooling systems on warships. The latest Burke destroyers will have double the power generation and cooling capacity of legacy destroyers, but that is not a concern if the military elects to assemble arrays on land. Because the technology is infinitely scalable, it is feasible to assemble a hundred or more cubes into hyper-sensitive arrays for defense of the homeland or allies.
The radar has no moving parts, so it is extremely reliable and requires only modest maintenance. Its digital beamforming software enables the radar to function effectively even in areas where the adjacent segments of the electromagnetic spectrum are cluttered, or enemy jammers are actively seeking to degrade performance. The latter issue has become a growing concern for military planners as national strategy shifts to an emphasis on great power competition.
Raytheon has been a pioneer in the application of gallium nitride technology to a diverse array of military systems, and the many millions of dollars it has invested over two decades is now yielding big gains for the company. Its in-house foundry that fashions the exotic material into chips is located only a few hundred feet from the SPY-6 main assembly facility in Andover, Massachusetts, assuring there are no supply-chain concerns. Raytheon execs like Ferraro describe gallium nitride with a fondness that few outside the engineering profession can fathom.
But that is just one facet of what makes SPY-6 a breakthrough for the Navy and the rest of the joint force. Military planners have been espousing the value of modularity and open architecture in designs for many years, and SPY-6 is a perfect example of what those virtues can accomplish in weapons design. Although the company refrains from resorting to Lego metaphors in describing the SPY-6 architecture, it is hard to imagine a more flexible, adaptable system than the new radar.
As chance would have it, Raytheon began delivering the first such radar to the Navy during the same week that the Sea Air Space Exposition was being held. It is no exaggeration to say that the arrival of SPY-6 in the fleet in future years will facilitate a revolution in how the Navy operates, helping the sea services to realize their goal of distributed maritime operations in a “multi-domain” warfighting environment. What the Navy and Raytheon have produced here is truly remarkable