Last Updated: 05/01/2013*
In a bustling factory in Mississippi, shiny blue cradles holding new aircraft radars line up for shipment like jets on a flight line, ready for takeoff.
At nearby workstations, technicians slide gold-colored circuit modules into radars headed for F/A-18s, F-15s and other aircraft. Workers in blue smocks closely monitor banks of test equipment, putting the complex sensors through their paces.
Here in Forest, Miss., Raytheon is producing hundreds of radars that use a revolutionary type of sensing technology known as active electronically scanned arrays. The company is now the world’s biggest producer of tactical AESA radars and expects to become even bigger with a new upgrade for the popular F-16 fighter.
“Forest is cranking,” said Fred Darlington, vice president of Operations for Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems. “Raw material in one end, finished airborne radar out the other end.”
Workers ready new aircraft radars for shipment in Forest, Miss.
Raytheon recently produced its 500th tactical AESA radar, and in April South Korea chose the F-16 model, known as the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), to upgrade its fleet. The Forest plant assembles the radars, while Raytheon’s Advanced Products Center in McKinney, Texas, supplies thousands of components and Raytheon’s CCA Center of Excellence in Andover, Mass. provides hundreds of digital circuit card assemblies.
“This radar and the lives it protects are a source of tremendous pride for the Raytheon workers who build it,” Rick Yuse, president of the company’s Space and Airborne Systems business, told a congressional committee in February.
AESA radars steer radar signals electronically, unlike older mechanically scanned radars that use machinery to turn the transmitter toward targets. AESA technology allows the radar beam to be steered at nearly the speed of light, and the new radars can see simultaneously in multiple directions, tracking both air and surface targets at the same time.
A worker installs circuit modules for an AESA radar.
Because the new radars have no moving parts, AESA-equipped planes are easier to maintain, said Eric Ditmars, Raytheon’s senior director of F/A-18 Radar Programs.
“The AESA was designed with maintenance in mind,”Ditmars said. “Parts can be rapidly removed and replaced on site.”
Raytheon’s drop-in design allows militaries to easily upgrade older aircraft with cutting-edge technology – an important advantage as budgets get tighter and delays plague new fifth-generation jets.
That’s especially important to the F-16, which is used by dozens of air forces around the globe. The U.S. government has already approved the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar for export.
As demand grows, workers in the Forest plant are busy filling dozens of orders for domestic and international Super Hornets, Growlers, Strike Eagles and other planes. Others test the radar’s processors. And finally, at the end of assembly, a worker wheels the cradle and its finished radar to a loading area.
Raytheon has manufactured over 500 AESA radars, more than any other company in the world.
With 500 radars already under their belts, engineers have worked out manufacturing bugs and honed the plant’s efficiency, said Stephen Schwarzkopf, senior director for F-15 radars.
The head start means Raytheon is already working on enhancements, Schwarzkopf said.
“By the time you make about 100, you’re way down the learning curve,” Schwarzkopf said. “That’s different from our competitors. They’re trying to get the first ones off the ramps and flying.”
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