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1. Radar is the most common sensor used in Air Defence and Strike roles. As
such it is an extremely important part of electronic warfare (EW). This lesson looks at
the basic principles of radar operation.

What is Radar

2. The word radar is an acronym, which stands for radio detection and ranging.
A basic radar system operates by transmitting an EM wave that is reflected by a

3. The transmitted pulse of EM energy is reflected from a target. The reflections

travel back to the radar system, where the receiver detects them. By recording the
transmit and receive times the range can be calculated. By pointing the radar
antenna in the exact direction of the target the direction can be calculated. The radar
pulse does however get weaker as it travels. This is mainly due to the spreading
effect of the wave front but also to the effect atmospheric attenuation. Therefore
transmitted power levels are related to the maximum range at which the radar is
required to operate.

Transmitter Power

4. A basic radar system operates by transmitting a pulse of EM energy and

detecting the reflections from a target. The radar pulse gets weaker as it travels.
This is mainly due to the spreading of the wave front, (also atmospheric effects.)
Therefore transmitted power levels are related to the maximum range at which radar
is required to operate.

5. With a radio communications system, the EM wave carries out a one-way

journey, from transmitter to receiver. The useful range of a communications
transmitter is therefore proportional to the square root of the peak power

R ∝ √P

6. With radar system the EM wave has to complete a two-way journey from
transmitter to target and from target to receiver. The useful range of a radar
transmitter is therefore proportional to the fourth root of the peak power.

R ∝ 4√P

This means to double the range of radar the transmitter needs to increase its power
level 16 times.

7. The transmitted power is called the peak power and can range from as high
as 20 megawatts (MW) in the case of a ground-based early warning radar, to as low
as 65 watts (W) in the case of a stealthy radar.

Target Reflections

8. The amount of the reflected power depends on the radar cross-section (RCS)
of the target and the amount of EM energy hitting it. Generally only a very small part
of the EM wave is reflected from a target.

9. Multiple reflections can also occur off the different surfaces of an aircraft
target. These reflections may combine to form a single reflected wave. If the multiple
reflections are in-phase, the amplitude of the single reflected wave is increased. If
the multiple reflections are out-of-phase, the amplitude of the single reflected wave is
decreased. This can be a problem for various types of radars.

Received Power Levels

10. As the EM wave travels back towards the radar system it suffers from the
same spreading losses as during its outward journey due to atmospheric losses.
The power levels of radar echoes vary considerably. Echoes from a large target at
short range may be as strong as 1 milliwatt (mW). Echoes from a small target at
long range may be as weak as 0·000,000,000,000,1 mW, (10 trillion times smaller).

Figure 1: Received Signal Strengths

Types of Radar Transmissions

11. Radar transmissions can be one of 2 basic types: unmodulated or modulated.

Unmodulated refers to the radar transmissions being unchanged or unregulated
which appears as a continuous wave. Alternatively Radar transmissions can be
modulated to form pulses or in frequency to form frequency modulated continuous
wave (FMCW).

a. Continuous Wave (CW) radars were the first type of radars to be

developed. In CW radar the transmitter is on continuously. To intercept the
CW radar reflections a separate receive antenna is required. Because there
is no gap in transmission, range cannot be measured. However, CW can
provide a target’s bearing and relative velocity.

b. Pulse Radar waves are employed by the majority of modern radar. A

very short burst of radar energy is transmitted and the receiver listens for
target reflections. The time between the transmit pulse and the receive pulse
allows the range to be determined. Basic pulse radars cannot directly
measure a target’s velocity.

c. Frequency Modulated Continuous Wave (FMCW) is achieved by
gradually increasing the frequency to a peak and then jumping back to the
original frequency (see Figure 2). This creates a series of timing reference
points, by which FMCW radar can measure a target’s range, as well as
velocity and bearing. The range measurement is not as accurate as the pulse

Figure 2: FMCW

The Radar Bands

12. Early in the development of radar, letter codes such as S, X, or L, were used
to designate the radar frequency bands, primarily for secrecy. After World War II,
these letter codes were kept, probably out of habit. Frequency ranges for each band
were assigned by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) in 1976
and have been recognised by the United States Department of Defence (US DoD).
These are known as the IEEE Standard Letter Designations for Radar Frequency
Bands and are used internationally by military and civilian radar, communications
and satellite system engineers.

Figure 3: IEEE Bands

13. As radar systems developed separately from EW equipment, a second

system of bands was established to facilitate the operational control of EW activities.
This was formalised by the United States Air Force Regulation (AFR) 55-44, but is
also known as the EW Bands. Throughout this course, the AFR 55-44 band
designations will be used when discussing both EW and radar equipment to avoid

Figure 4: The EW Bands

The Effect of the Atmosphere on Radar Propagation

14. Not all of the radio wave portion of the EM spectrum can be used by radar
systems. In passing through the Earth’s atmosphere, radio waves lose energy
(attenuate) by absorption and scattering. This increases with frequency below 0.1
GHz atmospheric attenuation is minimal, above 5 GHz, atmospheric attenuation
becomes significant.

15. Absorption in the Earth’s atmosphere is mainly due to oxygen and water
vapour. Because absorption therefore more severe in areas of high humidity but
decreases with altitude.

16. Radio waves are scattered by particles suspended in the atmosphere. The
main particles causing scattering are raindrops and hail.

Choice of Frequency

17. The choice of frequency affects the method of radar wave propagation,
atmospheric attenuation and the size of radar system components.

18. Low frequency radar relies on sky wave (refraction off of the ionosphere) and
surface wave propagation and suffers from minimal atmospheric attenuation. For
these reasons, radars using lower frequencies are ideal for long-range detection or
early warning. However, since frequency is related to wavelength, lower frequency
radars require large antennas, which present a problem for airborne platforms.

Figure 5: The Large Antennas of Low Frequency Radar

19. Higher frequency radar on the other hand relies on space wave (line-of-sight)
propagation and suffers from significant atmospheric attenuation. The smaller
antennas used for high frequency radars make them ideal for aircraft and missiles


20. Unfortunately a radar receiver will not only detect reflected echoes, but also
other random natural or man-made EM signals of the same frequency. These are
unwanted signals and are collectively known as noise. For a target to be detected,
the target echo must be stronger than the background noise. Receiver processing
techniques can be introduced into the radar receiver to improve the relative strengths
of target echoes compared to noise. This improves the radar’s detection capability.


21. Radar operates by transmitting and receiving an EM wave that has been
reflected by a target. Transmitted power levels are extremely strong and received
power levels are extremely weak. This is due to the spreading of the wavefront,
reflection from small targets and atmospheric effects. Radars can use modulated
(pulse and FMCW) or unmodulated (CW) waveforms to extract target range, angle
and velocity data. Not all of the radio band can be used by radar due to atmospheric
attenuation, which increases with frequency. Absorption and scattering are the main
causes of atmospheric attenuation. Choice of frequency is important as it determines
propagation paths, atmospheric attenuation and the size of radar components.