This week we’re digging into Lockheed Martin’s new TPY-4 ground radar. We know what you’re thinking: yawn.
Well, turn that frown upside down.
There’s some legit cool tech in the radar, and you’re going to hear about it.
The TPY-4 radar replaces the Air Force’s ancient 1960s TPS-75 radar, a key piece in the service’s expeditionary ground-based air control and coordination capability. Think of it as a ground-based AWACS that is C-130 transportable.
The TPY-4 radar was developed from the Air Force’s Three-Dimensional Expeditionary Long-Range Radar (3DELRR, pronounced “Three Dealer”) prototype program. The rapid demo part of the program was called Speed Dealer.
Anyhoo, the whole point of the TPY-4 radar is to see things further away—everything from quadcopter drones to stealth cruise missiles.
Now onto the good stuff.
The TPY-4 is a giant deployable GPU-powered, L-band, Gallium Nitride (GaN) based, network-enabled, fully-digital AESA radar. That’s a mouthful, so let’s break that down:
- Giant: The radar antenna array is over 26 feet tall
- Deployable: It's designed to be C-130 transportable
- GPU-powered: don’t let the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) name fool you—these are designed for parallel processing, which is very useful in high-performance computing applications
- L-band: This frequency range (1-2 GHz) has some key RF phenomenologies, namely the ability to detect stealthy things at long ranges
- GaN: We covered what radar capabilities are unlocked with GaN a while back, so refresh yourself here
- Network-Enabled: Software updates can be pushed over-the-air to all radars around the world simultaneously—good for deployed U.S. radars; game-changing for coalition interoperability
- Multi-mode: The radar can spin, adjust its scan rate, and even stop and stare based on what it’s tasked to do.
The final part is the “fully-digital AESA radar,” but that’s not exactly true.
The TPY-4 isn’t a radar—it's a software-defined array built from 1,000 radiating element tiles (aka pucks). These are fully digital for transmit and receive tasks, making it the first radar in the world with individually-controllable radar pucks.
BL: It’s a Voltron-like radar comprised of 1,000 mini-radars—made possible by using 5 commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) GPUs.
And that’s why we’re calling it the TPY-4 Radarz.
This unlocks some very interesting possibilities, especially when combined with all the back-end tech we already told you about.
Without speculating too much, we’ll give you one potential capability: Simultaneous multi-freq/multi-PRF operations.
Beyond the jam resistance this capability would have, the on-board processing power could be used to stitch together tracks using data from several pucks operating in multiple frequencies and PRFs—the makings of a perfect counter-stealth radar.
Despite the advanced tech, the TPY-4 was purpose-built in just 22 months, during the heart of the COVID supply chain struggle.
Even though it's somewhat based on the Sentinel A4 radar program, that’s still pretty quick—a surprising departure from the sluggish speeds normally associated with a defense prime.
The first TPY-4 production radar was completed back in May, and the Air Force has options to purchase up to 35 systems.
It ain't all rainbows and unicorns, though.
At the end of the day, the Air Force is just upgrading one radar with another—just like it's replacing one giant airborne C2 node (the E-3 AWACS) with another (the E-7 Wedgetail).
With all the hype around the need to shift to distributed networked C2 concepts (ABMS and JADC2), it will be interesting to see 1) how the TPY-4 fits in and 2) how many radars Congress will let the Air Force buy.
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