Eurofighter's New Radar Is Nearly Ready But Royal Air Force Wants An Even Better One
The Eurofighter is finally getting its long-awaited Captor-E AESA radar, but the RAF is going to wait for an enhanced version with special abilities.
The United Kingdom is holding out for a unique cutting-edge Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar for its Eurofighter Typhoons, while its European partners in the fighter program are forging ahead with a less capable, but ready solution. The Royal Air Force will likely receive its special version of the Captor-E radar that is currently in secretive development sometime in the middle of the current decade, which will enable its Typhoons to neatly complement its 5th generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters in high-end warfighting.
In a written statement on July 10, 2020, U.K. Minister for Defense Procurement Jeremy Quin stated: “The Ministry of Defence is committed to implementing an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar on our Typhoon fleet. The demonstration and manufacture phase for the UK's variant of the European Common Radar System is continuing at pace, and in June 2020 a contract was let with our European partners to develop a common integration solution across the Typhoon radar enterprise.”
An AESA radar in a modern fighter is extremely important. Compared to older mechanically-scanned array radars, AESAs can spot and track targets further away and with greater speed and accuracy, even against smaller and harder to detect threats, such as low flying cruise missiles. With increased power, they generally have better target discrimination and multi-target tracking capabilities, as well as greater resistance to jamming. With longer range, they allow fighters to make better use of a new generation long-range air-to-air weaponry, such as the MBDA Meteor that the Typhoons can carry. They are also significantly more reliable than their mechanically scanned array counterparts. You can read more about AESA radars and their unique capabilities in this past piece of ours.
Airbus announced in late June that it had been awarded a contract for the development, supply and integration of 115 AESA, or E-Scan, radars for German and Spanish Eurofighters. The news was extremely significant, marking the biggest development by far in a long-running saga related to the European fighter’s EuroRadar Captor-E system.
Airbus operations in Germany and Spain are two partners in the Eurofighter Typhoon program, alongside BAE Systems in the United Kingdom, and Leonardo in Italy. The European fighter has made significant progress over the past five years through the addition of an array of new weapons and avionics to herald a true multi-role mission capability. However, the story of the fighter’s next-gen radar has proved less impressive.
The June 2020 agreement for 110 Captor-E radars for Germany and an initial batch of five radars for Spain is significant in that it is the first such order from the partner nations involved in the Eurofighter program. The Airbus media release said the contract foresees the delivery and integration of the radars by 2023. “Whereas the Airbus sites in Manching, Germany, and Getafe, Spain, will act as overall integration hub, the development and building of the radar will be subcontracted to a consortium under the leadership of Hensoldt and Indra and by participation of further Eurofighter partner companies," according to the statement.
Dirk Hoke, CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, said: “The contract for the Captor-E radar is a main achievement to equip Eurofighter with sensors that ensure today’s dominance of the aircraft also in the threat scenarios of tomorrow.”
Eurofighter’s Complicated E-Scan Origins
The European Common Radar System for the Typhoon is a complicated collection of projects that are being run by the overarching EuroRadar consortium comprising Leonardo in the United Kingdom and Italy, Indra in Spain, and Hensoldt in Germany. EuroRadar has already manufactured over 400 mechanically-scanned Captor radars for the existing Eurofighters that are in service, and an eagerly-awaited AESA follow-on dates back to early demonstrator flight trials in 2006 and 2007 under a project known as CAESAR (Captor AESA Radar).
As long ago as 2012, then Eurofighter CEO Enzo Casolini said the E-Scan radar was “in full development,” as the partners sought to dispel confusion over the exact status of the radar with talk of an agreement by the end of 2012. “We started development, the gate target is to have entry to service in 2015,” Casolini said.
At the Farnborough International Air Show in 2014, BAE Systems, Eurofighter, and EuroRadar held a public unveiling of a production representative Euroradar Captor-E, fitted to BAE Systems-operated Eurofighter Instrumented Production Aircraft 5 (IPA5) serial ZJ700. The aircraft flew into the event with the radar fitted and Eurofighter declared that a trials program was under way. A second aircraft, a two-seat new-build Tranche 3 production batch aircraft (IPA8), was also in construction in Manching, Germany, ready to join the combined E-Scan test program.
Significantly, at the time of the unveiling, a contract for the radar was still not signed, with work being undertaken with contractor funding. However, speaking at Farnborough in 2014, the then British Minister for Defense Equipment, Support and Technology Phillip Dunne said that he expected to have a radar contract in place by the end of 2014. In fact, a €1 billion contract for the core development program of the common Captor-E radar was funded by the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and Spain in November 2014.
Captor-E Moves Into Flight-Test
A further two years passed before the Captor-E entered flight trials at BAE Systems’ site in Warton, Lancashire, when Typhoon IPA5 undertook a flight of around one hour on July 8, 2016. A media release said that IPA8 in Germany was also set to join the integration program. The kick-start came due to a pressing need to ensure the radar and weapons system would reach the required capability in time for first deliveries in late 2020 to the Kuwaiti Air Force, which became the aircraft’s eighth customer in April 2016 with an order for 28 jets. Importantly, Kuwait was the first Eurofighter operator to order the Captor-E for its aircraft and will be the first to operate with it.
In addition, Qatar ordered 24 Eurofighters in 2017. It too required Captor-E, and despite none of the original European partners having ordered the radar, more vital funding was flowing into the E-Scan project with these new foreign customers.
The latest radar order fits into a major enhancement project that was recently outlined for the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighters. Germany originally purchased 143 aircraft, consisting of 33 early Tranche 1 aircraft, 79 from Tranche 2, and 31 Tranche 3 aircraft. The Tranches are essentially the progressively more capable main build standards applied to three main batches of orders and manufacture. The Luftwaffe now plans to upgrade 110 Tranche 2/3 aircraft and procure new Tranche 4 aircraft to replace its early Tranche 1 jets under Project Quadriga. The radar contract appears to apply to both upgraded and new-build aircraft.
The Spanish element of the order relates to a plan to add Captor-E to its 19 Tranche 3 aircraft. Like Germany, Spain is also evaluating buying additional Eurofighters under Project Halcon, an emerging requirement to replace its aging EF-18 Hornets.
Why Is The E-Scan So Important?
BAE Systems says the Typhoon E-Scan will “deliver the largest electronically scanned array for increased detection and tracking ranges, advanced air-to-surface capability and enhanced electronic protection measures. The large airframe also allows a wider field of regard than any other platform.”
The antenna at the front-end of the E-Scan is mounted on a swashplate repositioner, that allows a much wider field-of-regard in terms of angular coverage (azimuth) compared with a fixed-plate antenna. It provides the ability to slew the antenna to “look” at far greater angles off the centerline of the aircraft. As such, a Typhoon could be traveling perpendicular to its target while still maintaining lock. This unique capability enables some highly unique tactics, which can be especially for non-stealthy fourth-generation fighter aircraft, that you can read all about in this past piece of ours.
Eurofighter says “The Captor-E electronically scanned radar is the future primary sensor on Eurofighter Typhoon and has a full suite of air-to-air and air-to-surface modes. The capacious aperture of the Eurofighter Typhoon allows the installation of Captor-E’s optimized and repositionable array whose field of regard is some 50 percent wider than traditional fixed plate systems.” A different repositioner system that looks to achieve the same goal is used by the Saab JAS 39 Gripen E for its Leonardo ES-05 Raven AESA radar, which you can read more about here.
One Radar Becomes Three
Details regarding the Captor-E test program since 2016 have been limited, although in Italy, Leonardo’s test aircraft Instrumented Series Production Aircraft 6 (ISPA 6) was reconfigured to full Kuwaiti Air Force standard and it returned to flight on December 23, 2019, to commence trials from Leonardo Aircraft Division in Turin-Caselle, Italy.
The aircraft became the third to carry the Captor-E and it is in Phase 3 Enhancement Package b (P3Eb) standard, which is the latest multi-role configuration — the standard specified for Kuwait. Eurofighter said that ISPA 6 has been used to refine Electronic Counter-Countermeasures (ECCM) for the radar and for software release certification flights.
While the baseline Captor-E is an integral part of the four-nation development program for the Eurofighter, there are actually three different variants of the radar. Kuwait and Qatar will receive the Mk 0 version, which was previously known as “Radar 1+.” The order for Germany and Spain will deliver 110 Mk 0 systems, but they will be subsequently upgraded to Mk 1 standard, which is a step-up in capability.
Leonardo remains the industry lead on the Captor-E Mk 0 radar and the company will provide “knowledge transfer” to enable Hensoldt to assume the role of design authority for the Mk 1 upgrade, with Leonardo continuing to provide the processor for this radar variant. The upgrade is thought to include the provision of new Transmit-Receive Modules (TRMs) for the antenna and a new multi-channel digital receiver. This is to be embodied initially as an upgrade and then via new-build radars.
Meanwhile, the Royal Air Force in the United Kingdom is targeting a third, altogether more advanced and more clandestine version of Captor-E, dubbed “Radar 2.” This is shaping up as potentially the most capable of all the Typhoon E-Scan radars, although officials are staying tight-lipped about its capabilities. According to RAF sources, “Radar 2” is “the preferred capability pathway for operating it in a true contested environment with a radar that can do more than just support air-to-air weapons and provide situational awareness.”
RAF pilots have always been swift to praise the legacy mechanically-scanned Captor, but procurement chiefs have robustly laid out ambitious plans to retrofit a small fleet of Tranche 3 jets with the new “Radar 2.” This will include additional electronic attack and secure data-link modes, whereby the radar is used as a high-bandwidth communications node and to make pinpoint electronic attacks. A number of secretive and lengthy technology demonstrator projects, including one named “Bright Adder,” have been leveraged to develop technology and mission requirements for “Radar 2.”
The United Kingdom’s Strategic Defense and Security Review in 2015 stated: “We will continue to enhance its multirole capabilities and integrate an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar.” According to a 2018 House of Commons Defense Committee document, “Radar 2” was then “in the assessment phase.” It added: “we anticipate Ministry of Defence Main Gate investment approval in the latter half of 2019. We expect that the new radar will be embodied on 40 Tranche 3 Typhoons.”
Leonardo Electronics Division is leading the RAF E-Scan program from an industry perspective. Its laboratory in Crewe Toll, North Edinburgh, Scotland, is thought to host the technology for the “Radar 2” program, now referred to by the company as Captor-E Mk 2. The next likely phase of the United Kingdom project would appear to be a move into live flight trials aboard a Eurofighter at BAE Systems’ Warton Aerodrome, but this has not been confirmed.
A far clearer picture of the overall Captor-E program is now forming and getting Typhoons with an E-Scan into service is a vital step in cementing the future credibility of the fighter, both for existing users and potential new customers. An AESA radar is an intrinsic part of what a modern fighter aircraft must bring to the air combat arena. While competitors have passed the Typhoon by in this critical technological regard over the last decade and a half, that is finally about to change.
In many ways, the Typhoon will finally be able to become all that it can be with this long-overdue reality sensor technology, and the RAF looks slated to get the most capable of the soon to be realized Captor-Es.
Contact the author: Jamie@thedrive.com