Going Big: Growing Network of Giant Radars Protects Against Missiles


Engineers stand beneath the enormous belly of a JLENS aerostat. This blimp-borne radar can float at heights up to 10,000 feet and see deep into enemy terrioty to detect incoming threats.

One looks like a Mayan pyramid and is as big as an office building. Another looks like a golf ball and floats in the ocean on a converted oil rig, while a third, a wheeled radar that can travel on roads, is the size of a Mack truck.

"Depending on the region, the country, and the specific threats faced, we'll build a radar sized to meet the unique requirements," said Jim Bedingfield, a Raytheon employee who spent his 24 year Army career as an Air and Missile Defender.

As the U.S. and its allies ramp up their anti-missile defenses, Raytheon is building, servicing and upgrading some of the world's largest radars.

"The pictures never do them justice," said Calla Baxter, an engineer. These radars, she said, are "big – really big."

But while the size is impressive, the size isn't an accident or a byproduct.

"We build the radars as large as they need to be for a specific threat-set," Bedingfield said. "Radars that have a global mission are going to be huge, but if we're talking about regional defense, we deliberately make them smaller."

Case in point is a 12-story high Upgraded Early Warning Radar, which is shaped like a Mayan pyramid and located outside the U.S. That king-sized radar, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, is part of a global network of radars that warns about missile launches that take place thousands of miles away.

Raytheon is in various stages of discussion on regional missile defense radars with a number of international customers. The solutions, which will use the same technology as other UEWRs, will likely be just a fraction of the size as the 12-story radar.

As a result, Raytheon has a family of missile defense sensors that are taking center stage. The technology, which is scalable to any size and mission, includes:

  • The Sea-based X-band Radar, a converted oil rig topped with a 10- story-high, Raytheon-built radar and dome.
  • AN/TPY-2 ballistic missile defense radars. Each one is the size of a school bus.
  • JLENS, two 80-yard-long blimps carrying giant radars.

The development of these radars comes as missiles are proliferating around the world. The Missile Defense Agency estimates there are more than 6,300 ballistic missiles outside of U.S., NATO, Russian and Chinese control.

To track these threats, some of the radars employ tens of thousands of individual transmitters that are steered electronically. These walls of electronics can reach several stories high.

The Upgraded Early Warning Radar uses Ultra High Frequency, or UHF, radio signals. But Raytheon has also developed systems that operate at other radar frequencies, including the powerful X-Band.

X-Band allows radars to provide the desired sensitivity at a smaller size suitable to be transportable and make precision measurements.

"The warfighter needed a high-sensitivity radar in a small package so they could move the radar around quickly," said Dr. John Krasnakevich, a retired Raytheon engineer.

The solution was the AN/TPY-2. Although small is a relative term – the rapidly relocatable radar is the size of a school bus – the AN/TPY-2 can be moved by land, sea or air. The Sea-Based X-band radar uses similar technology.

The massive face of the AN/TPY-2 radar searches the sky for threats.
The massive face of the AN/TPY-2 radar searches the sky for threats.

X-band radars can "discriminate," or take a detailed look at objects in close proximity to each other. Sophisticated computers can figure out which object is a threat and which can be ignored.

These X-band systems, including the AN/TPY-2, are now deployed around the globe to help defend against ballistic missiles.

While the power and sheer size of many of these radars is imposing, Baxter and other Raytheon engineers say they have been most impressed by the service members they meet as they build, upgrade, maintain and install the systems.

"Being in the mission operations room when the warfighters are manning the console and a mission going on is very serious business," said Baxter, who helped build the 12-story UEWR.

"They're very young, these men and women who are sitting at the console. But they're very well trained, and they are definitely focused on their mission of protecting us from a missile attack."

Published On: 01/31/2014
Last Updated: 12/06/2017