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Active Electronically Scanned Array

An Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA), also known as active phased array
radar is a type of radar whose transmitter and receiver functions are composed of
numerous small transmit/receive (T/R) modules. AESA radars feature short to
instantaneous (millisecond) scanning rates and have a desirable low probability of

As solid state devices, AESA radars have vastly simpler mechanical designs. They
require no complex hydraulics for antenna movement nor hinge appendages. The AESA
radar occupies less space than typical radar, because of its reduced infrastructure
requirements and of course its absent range of motion. With these improvements,
maintenance crews are far less severely taxed, and the radar is much more reliable.

Main advantages over mechanically scanned arrays are extremely fast scanning rate,
much higher range, tremendous number of targets being tracked and engaged (multiple
agile beams), low probability of intercept, ability to function as a radio/jammer,
simultaneous air and ground modes, Synthetic Aperture Radar.

Mechanical steering may be added to AESA radars for increased radar field of view; The
movement performance of the antenna would not need to be nearly as great as that of a
traditional radar, as the radar sweep is not integral to the contact update rate.


AESA radars have:

• High ECM resistance:

o The extremely fast scan of the radar makes it difficult for an ECM device
to find the correct azimuth and elevation in which the radar's main lobe is
currently directed.
o High gain associated with AESA radars gives them high ERP, which
makes it difficult for an active ECM device, using noise jamming
techniques, to successfully jam such a radar.
• The extremely fast scan of the emitter gives it LPI features.
• Less suspectibility to voltage failures, due to the relatively very low voltage in
which each and every single radiating element operates; This is combined with
graceful degradation.

The advent of production Active Electronically Steered Array (AESA) radar antennas
represents one of the most important, if not the most important development in radar
technology since the 1940s. With unprecedented reliability, superior performance and
typically of the order of a one thousand fold improvement in beam steering speeds, this
technology will transform many aspects of air combat and strike operations.

The idea of an electronically steered antenna is not new. Early warning radars used for
the detection of ballistic missile attacks have exploited this technology widely since the
1960s. The US Navy's SPY-1 Aegis radar, developed during the 1970s to defend carrier
battle groups against saturation attacks by Soviet cruise missiles, is perhaps the best
known electronically steered antenna design in operational use.

The B-1B Bone has flown since the 1980s with an AN/APQ-164 radar, fitted with an
electronically steered array. The B-1A Batwing also exploits this technology in its
AN/APQ-181 multimode attack radar. Both of these radars can be used for terrain
following flight, as well as surface attack modes. The Soviet MiG-31 Foxhound also
carries this technology in its SBI-16 Zaslon air intercept radar.

The important and recent development in electronically steered antennas is the solid state
X-band (centimetric wavelength) AESA, built using Gallium Arsenide chips. This
technology is now being retrofitted to in-service fighters and will be a standard
production component in the F-22A and F-35 series fighters, and most likely a
downstream production/upgrade item for late model F-16C, F/A-18E/F, Typhoon and
Rafale fighters.

Active Electronically Steered Arrays - A Primer

To best understand the importance of the AESA it is useful to explore the limitations of
conventional mechanically steered antennas, and the first generation of passive
Electronically Steered Arrays (ESA).

The basic purpose of any microwave radar antenna on a fighter (or bomber) is to focus
transmitted microwave power into a narrow beam, or receive reflected microwave power
from targets (or terrain), again within a narrowly focussed beamwidth. Targets are found
by steering the antenna repetitively through a programmed pattern, to search a volume of
sky or a surface footprint. The antenna transmits the energy, which travels out to the
target, reflects and is then received by the antenna. For an antenna to be useful it must
therefore not only be capable of launching and receiving microwave power, but must be
steerable precisely and preferably very quickly.

The one bit of good news in antenna physics is the reciprocity theorem which says that
the radiation pattern of an antenna when transmitting power is of the same shape as its
reception pattern.

In an ideal world the antenna produces an absolutely sharp beam - the radiation pattern is
for instance conical, and all energy transmitted is within that cone, and all energy
detected by the antenna is also within that cone. In the real world this of course does not
happen, the radiation pattern leaks outside the main lobe of the beam, creating what are
termed sidelobes. A good measure of antenna quality is how small the sidelobes are eg
ten times (10 deciBels or dB), one hundred times (20 dB), or one thousand times (30 dB)
below the mainlobe in magnitude.

The first generation of microwave fighter radar antennas were mechnically steered
concave reflectors, colloquially termed dish antennas. This is the basic technology the
RAAF still operates in the F-111's AN/APQ-169 and -171 radars. These antennas have
several drawbacks - they are expensive to fabricate to high accuracy, tend to have fairly
large sidelobes, and also have a frequently large radar signature when illuminated by a
hostile radar - as all concave reflecting cavities do.

By the 1970s the state of the art shifted to mechanically steered planar array or slotted
array antennas, an example being the AN/APG-65/73 radar in the RAAF's F/A-18A.
Planar arrays achieve their focussing effect not by reflection as concave antennas do, but
rather by manipulating the individual time delays into a very large number of very simple
slot antennas, arranged in a planar array panel. By using a cleverly designed and oft
complex network of microwave waveguides on the rear surface of the array, a designer
could produce the desired fixed beam shape and do so with much smaller sidelobes
compared to a concave reflecting antenna. As the antenna is a flat plate, it tends to act
like a flat panel reflector to impinging transmissions from hostile radars and thus has a
lower radar signature than a concave antenna.

While the US focussed on planar arrays, the Europeans and Soviets deployed a number of
Cassegrainian reflector antennas on fighter radars, as these performed better than concave
reflectors but were cheaper to design and fabricate than planar arrays - the design and
manufacture of the complex feed networks on the rear face of any array antenna is still
considered to be somewhat a black art.

Planar arrays provided important gains in beam quality but due to the need to
mechanically point them they remained slow to steer and also suffered the same
reliability problems as concave antennas. The complex mechanical gimbal arrangement
and servomotors used to drive such antennas suffer from wearout, and the cyclic
mechanical loads on the antenna proper can also induce material fatigue failures over

Airborne radar designers covetously eyed the electronically steered antenna technology
used on ground based radars and by the 1980s this technology found its way into airborne
radars, some examples noted earlier. An electronically steered antenna of this ilk is
designed with an individually electronically controlled device behind each antenna
element, which can manipulate the time delay or phase of the microwave signal passing
through it. With a computer controlling each element in unison, the beam direction and its
shape could be digitally controlled, within a matter of milliseconds or tens of

The first generation of such antennas used the signal phase as the controlling parameter,
typically using ferrite core devices for this purpose. Therefore such antennas were known
as phased arrays. A typical design could resemble a conventional planar array, but with a
layer of digitally controlled ferrite core phase modules inserted between the antenna array
elements and the microwave feed network on the back of the antenna. As the antenna
contained only what engineers term passive components, these antennas are also known
as passive phased arrays or passive electronically steered arrays. The Russian SBI-16
Zaslon, Phazotron Zhuk Ph and NIIP N-011M are good examples, as are the AN/APQ-
164 and -181 mentioned earlier.

This generation of Electronically Steered Arrays permitted unprecedented beam seering

agility compared to mechanically steered antennas, and very large reductions in antenna
radar signature if well designed. Beamsteering agility in turn permitted the important
capability of interleaving radar modes. An ESA can timeshare multiple and diverse
modes, a good example being shared concurrent operation performing both terrain
following and surface mapping for weapon delivery.

However, the antenna did nothing to enhance either the reliability or the efficiency of the
radar. The high power Travelling Wave Tube in the transmitter remained, causing its
traditional share of reliability woes, while the complex interconnections required to
connect the digital control signals to the wirewound ferrite cores was an additional
burden. Since the ferrite cores introduced signal losses in both the receiving and
transmitting directions, these antennas were less sensitive than their mechanically steered
predecessors, and required more powerful microwave tubes to drive them.

The US DoD recognised the need for a better antenna technology more than two decades
ago. A new technology, using the phased array concept but with a miniature transmitter
and receiver in each antenna element, was seen to be the answer to the limitations of
existing technologies. Known as active phased arrays or AESAs, these antennas became
the holy grail in the radar community - for reasons yet to become fully apparent.

The enabling technology for AESAs is the Gallium Arsenide Microwave Monolithic
Integrated Circuit (GaAs MMIC) or microwave circuit on a single chip. GaAs MMICs
would permit the low cost mass production of AESAs, with high reliability and

Gallium Arsenide is however a finicky material to make chips from and it took almost
two decades for the fabrication technology to move from expensive botique manufacture
to industrial strength mass production. Today this technology is being put into cellphones,
broadcast satellite receivers and TV sets. The author recalls a development project in
1984 where he has not permitted to use a GaAs low noise transistor in a $100k piece of
high speed communications equipment - too expensive, Carlo, find a cheaper way to do
this!. A decade ago the GaAs component market was dominated by military buys, which
today comprise only around 2% of the total market volume.

The problems in producing a digitally controlled solid state AESA were evident very
early - cost, density and power handling would be critical. All of these factors have
contributed to the relatively late deployment of the technology in operational aircraft.
The basic building block of any AESA is the Transmit Receive Module or TR Module. It
is a self contained package making up one AESA antenna element, and contains a low
noise receiver, power amplifier, and digitally controlled phase/delay and gain elements.
Digital control of the module transmit/receive gain and timing permits the design of an
antenna with not only beam steering agility, but also extremely low sidelobes in
comparison with passive ESA and mechanically steered antennas.

Two other important benefits are derived from this design approach. The first is an very
important improvement in antenna noise behaviour, since the TR module's low noise
receiver is within the antenna itself. Typically this yields between a two and fourfold
reduction in receiver thermal noise, in turn contributing to improved radar sensitivity and
thus detection range, all else being equal.

The second important benefit is a result of the transmitter power stages being distributed
across hundreds or over a thousand TR modules, rather than being concentrated into a
single transmitter tube. As a result, failure of up to 10% of the TR modules in an AESA
will not cause the loss of the antenna function, but merely degrade its performance. From
a reliability and support perspective, this graceful degradation effect is invaluable. A
radar which has lost several TR modules can continue to be operated until scheduled
downtime is organised to swap the antenna. Other beneifts also accrue - a classical design
with a high power tube must carry the transmitter power to the antenna through a
pressurised waveguide, and power will be lost in the antenna. Transmitter tubes require
highly stressed high voltage high power supplies, which also tend to be unreliable. Since
each TR module only handles several Watts of power, fed from a low voltage supply
(several Volts rather than kiloVolts), it can be designed for much lower electrical stress

As a benchmark, typical conventional fighter radars have Mean Times Between Failure
(MTBF) of around 60 to 300 hours - AESA radars push the MTBF into the 1,000 hours or
better class. Rather than several repairs annually to the radar, the AESA will see the radar
needing repair only once every several years of operation. If we assume an annual flying
rate of around 200 hours, on average the AESA needs to be repaired once every five
years! From a support costs perspective, this means much reduced cost of ownership for
fighter fleet operators who transition to the technology.

An AESA becomes a combined transmitter, low noise receiver and beamsteering

package, providing high beamsteering agility, very low radar signature when illuminated
and extremely low sidelobes, all digitally controlled. With digital control of TR module
gain, power management which is vital for reduced or low probability of intercept (RPI,
LPI) operation becomes relatively easy to do. Beamsteering agility also facilitates
reduced or low probability of intercept scan patterns.

In many respects an AESA is a fighter radar designer's dream device, since it not only
vastly improves performance and functional capabilities, but does so with improved
reliability and complete digital control of antenna/transmitter functions. Over the life of
an AESA radar, progressive refinements in many aspects of antenna behaviour can be
incorporated through incremental software upgrades. Software programmable AESAs at
this time largely implement digital equivalents of established antenna beam shapes, scan
patterns and sidelobe behaviours. Over time with proper intellectual effort, further
improvements are possible.

Are there any drawbacks to the AESA? Two issues are of key importance with this

The first item of interest is power dissipation. Due to the behaviour of microwave
transistor amplifiers, the power efficiency of a TR module transmitter is typically less
than 45%. As a result, an AESA will dissipate a lot of heat which must be extracted to
prevent the transmitter chips becoming molten pools of Gallium Arsenide - reliability of
GaAs MMIC chips improves the cooler they are run. Traditional air cooling used in most
established avionic hardware is ill suited to the high packaging density of an AESA, as a
result of which modern AESAs are liquid cooled. US designs employ a polyalphaolefin
(PAO) coolant similar to a synthetic hydraulic fluid. A typical liquid cooling system will
use pumps to drive the coolant through channels in the antenna, and then route it to a heat
exchanger. That might be an air cooled core (radiator style) or an immersed heat
exchanger in a fuel tank - with a second liquid cooling loop to dump heat from the fuel
tank. In comparison with a conventional air cooled fighter radar, the AESA will be more
reliable but will require more electrical power and more cooling, and typically can
produce much higher transmit power if needed for greater target detection range
performance (increasing transmitted power has the drawback of increasing the footprint
over which a hostile ESM or RWR can detect the radar).

Another issue of concern with AESAs is the mass production cost of the TR modules.
With a fighter radar requiring typically between 1,000 and 1,800 modules, the cost of the
AESA skyrockets unless the modules cost hundreds of dollars each. With early module
builds yielding unit costs of around USD 2,000 the cost penalty of using an AESA over a
conventional design was prohibitive. The good news in this respect is that the ongoing
trend has been downward, in a large part as the production engineering of the modules
and MMIC chips has improved. Having an enormous commercial market for similar
MMIC chips has yielded important benefits.

The longer term technology trends for AESAs are clear - a progressive cost reduction as
volumes increase and production matures, with concurrent refinements in digital antenna
control techniques improving the capabilities of the antennas.

At this time the US are leading the pack by a large margin in AESA technology, with the
EU and Israelis trailing. The Russians remain in the passive AESA domain but this will
change as commercially available GaAs MMICs proliferate. The Russians have a robust
track record in passive ESA design and the only obstacle to an AESA equipped Su-30M
is the availability of suitable chips in volume.

Current AESA Programs

A number of AESA programs are currently under way, some as new build radars for new
fighter designs, some as retrofits to existing aircraft.

The first generation of AESAs to field will be the L-band (decimetric) radars used in the
Israeli Phalcon derivatives, and importantly the RAAF's Wedgetail MESA radar which is
expected to be used in the new USAF MC2A (Multi-sensor Command Control Aircraft)
E-3 AWACS, E-8 JSTARS, RC-135 Rivet Joint replacement. The lower L-band operating
frequency of these radars permits the use of older transistor technology, giving this class
of AESA about 5 years of market lead against the X-band fighter AESAs.

The E-8 JSTARS is a candidate for an X-band AESA replacement of its existing passive
ESA radar, used for high resolution mapping and surface target detection. It is likely that
the planned JSTARS AESA will be used on the MC2A - the MC2A variant to be used to
replace the JSTARS/AWACS combo will be a 767 airframe carrying both radars (this is a
potential growth path for the Wedgetail, by the addition of a JSTARS/MC2A derivative
radar under the forward fuselage).

US sources indicate that the RQ-4 Global Hawk is likely to see an AESA upgrade later in
the decade, to provide increased range and radar optimisations for accurate ground target
tracking, and airborne target tracking

In the fighter domain the first AESA to field is the AN/APG-63(V)2 on the F-15C. This
is a major upgrade of the original AN/APG-63 radar using a 1500 element AESA. While
only 18 F-15Cs were originally to be retrofitted, the gains in reliability and thus reduced
support costs are likely to see this AESA migrate onto the USAF's 200+ strong F-15E
fleet, as well as further F-15Cs. The Korean F-15K is expected to carry this AESA,
making it the most capable fighter in the Asia-Pacific region.

The next AESA to field will be the Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-77 radar on the USAF's
F-22A. This 1,500 element AESA will remain the highest performing fighter radar in the
market for the forseeable future. Designed with a very low radar signature antenna, it will
provide the F-22 with a greater detection and engagement range than any other fighter in
the market. Current planning envisages that the -77 will transition from the current TR
module design to a design common to the F-35 JSF radar, with the aim of cost reductions.
Recent US disclosures suggest that this will happen around the middle of the decade, as
an F-22A Block 5 configuration, with the AESA rework incorporating antenna features
for undisclosed advanced ground attack modes. The AN/APG-77 radar is the first of new
generation of radars which push the back end signal and data processing functions into
the aircraft's central computers, rather than inside a dedicated radar processor box.

The third AESA to field will be the 1,000 element Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-80,
formerly the AN/APG-68 Agile Beam Radar, on the UAE's new F-16C Block 60 fighter.
This radar is a substantial redesign of the established AN/APG-68 and will utilise COTS
VMEbus derived high performance processing in the radar back end functions. It is
expected to support not only the full range of air-air and strike modes, but also
interleaved terrain following. IOC is likely to be in the 2003-2004 timeframe.

The fourth AESA to field is likely to be the 1,100 element Raytheon AN/APG-79,
formerly AN/APG-73 RUG III, on the USN's new F/A-18E/F fleet. This AESA is a block
upgrade to the existing AN/APG-73 series. Whether the whole F/A-18E/F fleet receives
the radar has not been disclosed, but given the longer term life cycle cost benefits this
could become a long term priority for the USN.

The F-35 JSF, if it proceeds to plan, will field with a 1,200 element AESA radar using a
similar architecture to the F-22's AN/APG-77. While little has been disclosed in the way
of design details, this radar is likely to resemble a scaled down and less capable F-22
radar, with a strong optimisation for strike roles.

Other players are entering the market. Work continues on the European AMSAR AESA
for the Eurofighter Typhoon. Public data suggests a 1,500 element design although this
might be optimistic given the size of the Typhoon. An AMSAR derivative is a likely
retrofit option for the Rafale.

Israel's Elta has published datasheets on a range of X-band GaAs MMIC chips which
would be suitable for an AESA but as yet no disclosures of system level products have
been made.
Reports also suggest that the Russian radar houses are working on AESA designs,
although details remain very sketchy. Any Russian design would have to make use of
imported GaAs MMIC chips as Russia's industry lags severely in this area. A likely
outcome is that COTS GaAs MMICs would be adapted for a Russian design, as the
export controls on high volume X-band satellite transceiver chips are likely to be
unenforcable over the coming decade. A suitcase of GaAs MMIC chips makes for a lot of

It is not inconceivable that we may see a robust number of AESA retrofits over the
coming decade to established teen series fighter fleets in the West, as the investment in
this technology returns a large payback in medium and long term support cost reductions.
With large fleets of the F-15C/E and F-16C in USAF and export client service, possibly
several hundred aircraft could be retrofit candidates.

What impact does the AESA have for Australia? Clearly any aircraft considered for A6K
must have an AESA - anything less is simply an unnecessary drain on fighter support

In terms of retrofits, the remaining life cycle and increasing strategic irrelevance of the
F/A-18A HUG make it a poor candidate for an AN/APG-79 AESA retrofit later in the
decade. The F-111 would be an excellent AESA retrofit candidate especially since the
support cost reductions and reliability gains over the 1960s AN/APQ-169/171 suite
would achieve a major impact in life cycle costs in the 2015-2020 timescale. As recent
testimony by LtGen Mueller to a parliamentary committee indicates, the principal issue
in F-111 life-of-type will be the support of the remaining 1960s generation aircraft
systems in the post 2010 period, given that the RAAF is now retrofitting AMARC F-111F
wings to gain significantly more airframe fatigue life.

Current trends are that the AESA will supplant conventional mechanically steered radars
in all production fighter applications over the coming decade, and there are good
prospects for partial fleet retrofits across the several thousand teen series fighters likely to
remain in service over the next 2-3 decades. The only issue with the AESA will be
securing near term funding for retrofits, given that the support cost payback may take
several years to be seen. Given the tremendous combat capability gains resulting from the
AESA, the case for retrofits is very robust if the aircraft is to remain in service for more
than a decade.

In summary, the AESA will have a revolutionary impact over the coming decade, and
smart players should be now exploring how to best exploit this pivotal technological