Modernizing electronics is the most efficient way to upgrade a fighter design, and European governments and industry are investing in those areas to keep their programs competitive.

The most comprehensive fighter avionics program in Europe is the all-new sensor and processing suite for the Saab JAS 39E Gripen. Its main components are the Selex Raven ES‑05 active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and Skyward-G infrared search and track (IRST) sensor (AW&ST March 17, p. 28) and Saab’s all-new electronic warfare system (AW&ST May 26/June 2, p. 66), including AESA transmit/receive units using gallium-nitride (GaN) technology.

Selex asserts that its IRST technology—also used on Typhoon—has detected and tracked stealth aircraft and can do so at tactically useful ranges. The Raven radar will be the first operational AESA to use a “repositioner”—a rotating mount for the canted array, which provides a wider field of regard than a fixed AESA. The jamming system—which is regarded as a major technological advance and will not be fully installed before 2023—will be able to generate high-powered, agile jamming beams over a wide spectrum.

Saab also is building on its experience with datalinks to improve the already close connections that are possible within a flight of Gripens. This will include the ability of one aircraft to jam the target while the other tracks it, automated and unpredictable “hopping” of the radar transmission from one aircraft in the formation to another, and the use of multiple IRSTs for high-accuracy passive ranging and tracking.

France has also announced big investments for Rafale. Dassault has already inducted the first of the French Navy Rafale F1-standard aircraft to begin an upgrade to the latest service configuration, F3-04T, which includes the active, electronically scanned array (AESA) version of the RBE2 radar and the DDM-NG missile-warning system. The program goal is to retain all the aircraft in service through rolling upgrades, the company says.

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The DDM-NG, part of the Thales/MBDA Spectra defensive avionics suite, comprises two imaging infra-red sensors located on either side of the fighter’s fin-tip pod, each with a hemispherical field of view and jointly providing full spherical coverage other than the area blanked by the fighter’s wing. Its ability to detect and track other targets, such as aircraft, is classified, according to Dassault.

In January, the French defense ministry awarded Dassault a contract for the next major Rafale upgrade, known as F3-R. It includes more powerful processors and upgrades to the Multi-functional Information Distribution System-Low Volume Terminal datalink and the automatic ground collision avoidance system.

For tactical and strategic reconnaissance missions, F3-R will include in-cockpit replay and analysis of imagery from the Thales Areos long-range oblique photography (Lorop) reconnaissance pod. The Rafale pilot or weapon system operator will be able to review imagery without interrupting the pod’s collection process.

The upgrade will also see a series of improvements to Spectra. Developed by Thales and MBDA, Spectra is a fully automated system that provides electromagnetic detection, laser and missile warning, jamming and four chaff/flare dispensers. French industry sources say that during operations over Libya in 2011, Rafale literally disappeared from the radar screens of the Libyan air force, performing “soft kills” on enemy radar systems.

Bruno Carrara, director of the Rafale program at Thales, says the F3-R upgrade will involve a more advanced electromagnetic detection capability based on new digital wide-band-receiver technologies, improving the suite’s spectrum analysis as well as its instantaneous interception capability.

Thales will also update Spectra’s solid-state jamming subsystem, which was one of the first to use electronically steered phased-array antennas. Carrara says for F3R, Spectra will include more powerful antennas, while further increasing the power supply so that more threats can be jammed simultaneously. Like Saab, Thales will use GaN technology because of its power and efficiency.

Since the late 1990s, Spectra’s designers have dropped hints that the system can perform “active cancellation”—receiving a radar signal and mimicking the aircraft’s echo exactly one-half wavelength out of phase so the radar sees nothing. Carrara again implies that such a capability is in use: “There are other strategies, such as generating signals that will encompass or be higher than the echo from the aircraft, so that the radar threat will receive a signal that will mask the echo from the aircraft,” Carrara says. “Instead of creating a false echo and drawing the radar to the wrong place, the idea is to produce a signal that will mask the echo of the aircraft, so the radar will be unable to detect the aircraft Spectra is protecting.”

So far, the Eurofighter Typhoon appears to be running third in the AESA race. This summer, the last Tranche 2 aircraft will be completed. Its successor, Tranche 3 provisions Typhoon for the AESA and adds enhanced on-board computing and additional fiber-optic cabling and video capability. “But a blindfolded pilot getting in there won’t even see an additional switch,” says BAE’s chief test pilot, Mark Bowman. “For a pilot jumping from a Tranche 2 to a Tranche 3 aircraft there is that high level of concurrency.”

It is now a firm part of Royal Air Force planning that Tranche 1 -Typhoons will be retired in 2019. For Tranche 2 and 3 jets, though, the focus is on software upgrades. The Phase 1 Enhancements (P1E) program has been split into two parts—P1E-A and P1E-B. The P1E-A product provides the aircraft with a basic set of air-to-ground capabilities, which P1E-B builds on (for example, it is via P1E‑B that Typhoon gains a full capability with the Paveway IV weapon).

“The software product isn’t determined by whether it is a Tranche 2 or Tranche 3 aircraft,” Bowman explains. “We’ve completed all the flying on P1E‑A, which is in service with the RAF and the Royal Saudi Air Force. And we’ve finished the P1E-B product now and aircraft are entering into service ahead of the U.K.’s requirement of April 1, 2015. Next up is P2E (Phase 2 Enhancements), which brings significant differences in HMI (Human--Machine Interface) such as better integration of the helmet, and so on.”

This supports the multirole capabilities of the aircraft. “One of Typhoon’s benefits, and a discriminator over other platforms out there at the moment, is the fact it can do air-to-air and air-to-surface at the same time,” Bowman continues. “Where P2 takes it is to build even more on those philosophies, and [provisions for] introduction of new weaponry.”