NavWeek: Radar Shove

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There must be a typo.

That’s the understandable first thought that could pass through anyone’s mind upon seeing the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) new cost estimates for the Navy’s proposed Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR), which is meant to combine S- and X-band radars for simultaneous and unmatched air and ballistic missile defense (BMD). The Navy plans to first put the AMDR on its DDG-51 Flight III destroyers.

AMDR’s total price tag is now estimated at about $5.8 billion, compared to the $15.2 billion projected by GAO last year.

Contractors working on the program, as well as other industry sources, have said for some time they thought AMDR could be completed for much less than was being projected – but this kind of dramatic reduction sounds just a little bit too good to be true. This is more like a clearance price or a going-out-of business sale.

However, the lower costs carry some caveats. For example, the first radar suites will be cheaper because they won’t have as much capability.

“The X-band portion of AMDR will be comprised of an upgraded version of an existing rotating radar (SPQ-9B), instead of the new design initially planned,” GAO notes. “The new radar will instead be developed as a separate program at a later date and integrated with the 13th AMDR unit.” There are 22 planned AMDRs.

“According to the Navy, the SPQ-9B radar fits better within the Flight-III DDG 51's sea frame and expected power and cooling,” GAO says. “While program officials state that the upgraded SPQ-9B radar will have capabilities equal to the new design for current anti-air warfare threats, it will not perform as well against future threats.”

That last line is no small matter. The Navy has been saying for years that it needs AMDR to address those “future threats” and the service says it needs that radar sooner rather than later. Either those threats are not as big a deal as some have suggested or the nation could be taking an awfully big risk with these early versions of AMDR-Lite.

GAO also notes additional software development will be required to integrate the S-band and SPQ-9B radars – and for other areas, too. “According to program officials, software development for AMDR will require a significant effort,” GAO says. “A series of software builds are expected to deliver approximately 1 million lines of code, with additional testing assets also being developed. Software will be designed to apply open system approaches to commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. Integration with the SPQ-9B radar, and later the AMDR-X radar, will require further software development.”

Okay, so for the lower costs of AMDR-Lite, we also face cost risk associated with more software development. Anything else?

“The Navy plans to install a 14-foot variant of AMDR on Flight III DDG-51s starting in 2019,” GAO says. “According to draft AMDR documents, a 14-foot radar is needed to meet threshold requirements, but an over 20-foot radar is required to fully meet the Navy's desired integrated air and missile defense needs. However, the shipyards and the Navy have determined that a 14-foot active radar is the largest that can be accommodated within the existing DDG-51 deckhouse.”

GAO reports that Navy officials say AMDR is being developed as a scalable design, but a new ship would be required to host a larger version.

So again, to get the AMDR the Navy really wants, the nation has some new designing and building to do. Many defense analysts say the modifications that could be required on the Flight III Burke to accommodate AMDR, other systems or weapon advancements the Navy has been considering for several years could be cost-prohibitive.

That AMDR cost figure is starting to look more suspect. Congress needs to find out what is being included in that figure and why there was such a sudden dip between last year and now. While technology has matured, there’s nothing to suggest it has improved to this great a degree.

In the meantime, there are other options for meeting the increasing threat level.

The current Aegis system seems to be improving all the time. The new Baseline 9 recently completed its first live-fire test on the guided missile cruiser CG-62 Chancellorsville, detecting, tracking and engaging a medium-altitude subsonic target.

Some analysts have suggested the Cobra Judy radar platform – another sea-based X- and S- band package for BMD work.

The Cobra Judy Replacement system also passed milestone tests recently, prime contractor Raytheon says.  The X- and S-band radars integrated onboard the USNS T-AGM 25Howard O. Lorenzen successfully acquired and tracked both stages of an Atlas V rocket launched from Cape Canaveral and collected all associated data about 100 miles off the Florida coast after March 19 live-rocket launch.

“The Cobra Judy Replacement ship is comparatively cheaper than DDG-51s,” notes the Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a recent report.

CRS notes the ship was commercially designed and built. “It is not a combatant ship, which would limit its employment in a combat environment and make it difficult to deploy to multiple-engagement locations," CRS says.

Indications are, though, that risk is becoming relative these days.

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