BOLO: Starting in Lot 17, all F-35 variants will get a new radar—the APG-85.
While details are scant, and we won’t speculate on capabilities…we will speculate on what’s powering it.
There is a new(ish) type of semiconductor hitting the streets that are based on Gallium Nitride (GaN).
GaN was initially developed in the 1990s to solve a very niche, very non-military problem: colored LEDs—specifically, the blue LED (if you’re too young to remember the 1990s, all LEDs were red back then).
At the same time use of silicon was exploding. After all, it makes for a pretty decent semiconductor, which is why it's used in 95 percent of all electronics sold worldwide today.
But people soon realized that GaN can do some pretty interesting things that silicon can't when used as a semiconductor in a computer chip.
GaN chips have 3X the bandgap width as a silicon chip, meaning they can move more electrons with less energy loss (i.e. heat), and they can sustain higher temperatures than silicon.
Translation: GaN offers these key advantages over silicon:
- Higher breakdown strength (5-10X more power, radiation-hardened)
- Higher efficiency (lower leakage currents, less heat)
- Faster switching speed (wider frequency range)
- Smaller transistors for smaller chips (Less size and weight)
Hard to comprehend? Apple offers GaN-based rapid chargers for iPhones (iPhone 12 and later) that are 35% smaller but charge 3 times faster than normal chargers.
Go to Amazon, search “gan charger,” and you’ll see how proliferated GaN has become.
GaN also happens to be very useful in RF devices...like active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars.
Benefits of GaN-based radars:
- Increased detection range (read: small and stealth targets)
- Smaller package (read: mobile and multi-domain use cases)
- Wider range of operating frequencies (non-traditional spectrum operations, harder to jam, etc).
Back to the beginning, we're pretty sure the APG-85 is using GaN.
Why: literally every new AESA radar being developed is now using GaN. If the APG-85 isn't, you should call your Congressman.
Here’s a quick US market GaN radar landscape:
Lockheed Martin: Not well-known for its radars (all of their fighter jets use Northrop gear), LockMart is a player on the ground-based scene.
Raytheon: Over the past decade, they’ve invested hundreds of millions of dollars into developing their own DoD-accredited GaN chip foundry, and they are the furthest ahead in the GaN-based radar race.
- They’ve secured contracts to integrate GaN into its larger-sized line of arrays like the Army’s AN/MPQ-53 (Patriot) and AN/TPY-2 (THAAD) land-based radars, as well as the Navy’s SPY-6 family of radars used on the AEGIS and aircraft carriers.
- They’re also producing the APG-79(V)4 AESA radars for the Navy’s F/A-18E/F and EA-18G fleet. The first flight occurred in mid-2022, making it also the first time a GaN-based fighter radar has flown.
- Raytheon has already proposed a GaN upgrade to the APG-82 used by the F-15E and F-15EX, which is also the baseline system for the new B-52 AESA radar.
- Finally, they are leveraging GaN to take aim at the attritable air vehicle market with a yet-to-be-named half-sized AESA radar.
Northrop Grumman: The company with the world’s largest AESA radar contract—the F-35’s current APG-81 radar—might be a bit behind but they aren’t asleep at the wheel. They are currently delivering GaN-based AESA radars to the Marine Corps for its AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar (GATOR).
GaN is going to quickly disrupt the way militaries fight and maneuver throughout the frequency spectrum—from stealth to electronic warfare.
As perceived capability advantages instantly vanish it may disrupt entire force structure decisions in the next several years.
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