The G/ATOR program is a highly mobile system intended to fully support the Marine Corps' expeditionary warfare requirements. In the following IDGA exclusive interview, Lee Bond, Program Manager, examines the future for the multi-mission radar, how the USMC are managing costs, and what challenges are unique to the program as it enters the production years. Read on…
G/ATOR [Ground/Air Tasked Oriented Radar] is a multi-mission radar that is being developed to replace several legacy radars, some of which have been retired and some of which are in service, but they’re getting very long in the tooth. It will actually perform three different missions with its different software loads. You basically bring the system up each day and load the particular software that gives it these mission features, but its roles and responsibilities include providing air defense of the Marine operating forces when they hit the beach in the far corners of the world, or to provide for counter-targeting; now we’re looking for rockets, artillery, and mortars that are being launched at the friendly forces, and the idea is to give our tactical aircraft or artillery enough information to counter against those attacks. Last but not least is air traffic control which is obviously managing the friendlies who are flying through the airspace even as you are trying to do air defense against the potential hostiles, thus one radar can performs all of these missions, which historically have been performed by multiple different radars for the marine operating forces in the field.
Specify how advances in digital radar technology have aided the development of the G/ATOR system
We are very proud of the use of the advanced technologies in the G/ATOR system. It is an advanced active electronic AESAradar antenna, which means all of the transmit-receive modules and the power supplies that drive them, and all of the high energy analog signals exist only in the antenna.
After the return signals are received and converted you go through the A to D conversion process and the only thing that leaves the antenna to move elsewhere through the system are digital signals, so no external wave guide with all the transmission losses typically experienced in such constructs, no universal joint where you’re trying to pump high energy and signals up and down through a rotating antenna. The other thing going on here is that antenna that I’ve been talking about in such glowing terms is air cooled with counter flowing air throughout the structure of the antenna itself which is how you take away the heat that is being generated by the high powered microwave components, so once again you have no plumbing running liquid coolant from some pumping system all up, down, and through the antenna. It’s just counter flowed air being blown back and forth by fans that are there on the antenna and you use that counter flowing ambient air to keep it cool enough that you can continue to operate for lengthy periods of time, whether you are in the desert where the Marines are so frequently deployed in recent years or in more forbidding conditions in farther northern climates. So wherever the Marines have to go in the world, you are able to keep the antenna functioning just by cooling it with the ambient air available in that time and place.
Now the last thing that is so exciting about it is the degree of miniaturization. We’re currently at Wallops Island, VA doing some field-testing right in front of some Navy engineering test facilities which the Navy built a generation ago for the shipboard AEGIS SPY radars. Most of the folks who participate in these forums are familiar with the capabilities of the Navy’s AEGIS Cruisers and Destroyers, how capable their SPY radars are, how far they can see; how well they can see; well G/ATOR is on the beach in front of them seeing most of the same targets, although not to the same extreme ranges, and we’re doing it with a system that weighs a couple of thousand pounds. The point is, a generation ago the Navy had to build a whole ship around this radar just to power it and to process the returns and provide command and control with information to the crew, and we’ve taken most of that same capability and got it in a single antenna on a single trailer that the Marines can lift around the littoral environment with a helicopter, thus the miniaturization that’s taken place with these capabilities in a generation is almost breathtaking and it’s really made G/ATOR an extremely compact and efficient system that the Marines can take any place they need to.
Explore the operational costs and requirements for this system. How are costs developing and how are you managing that?
Thank you, that’s another aspect of this problem. I’m talking about lots of cool technology, and our strength as Americans is our ability to employ the best technology in the world, but it’s never cheap. Obviously there’s a challenge to any Program Manager on the first day to keep the program as affordable as possible. Currently we’re still in development. We are within a year of awarding our first low rate production contract, but we’ve only built two of these systems, the engineering development models.
The way one approaches cost at this point in the program is to look for the opportunities as we move into production to continue to evolve the technology, whether it’s a tech refresh in the processors or in our case a once-in-a-generation opportunity to move to a more efficient semi-conductor technology. Those who speak ‘semi-conductor’ will recognize that the current state of the art, probably in the cell phone that we’ve all got sitting beside us at our desk, is Gallium-Nitride. However the G/ATOR prototypes were built with Gallium Arsenide, because at the time they were built, five to six years ago, that was the safe, military qualified, ready-to-deploy technology.
The move to Gallium-Nitride has been happening over the course of the last three to five years, and it’s still being refined, not so much the technology itself but the process whereby it’s produced into military grade electronics.
What we’ve done is to base our program on a reasonably priced system that would all be Gallium-Arsenide knowing that we had the opportunity a few years further along to cut in the newer technology, the Ga-N semi-conductors and save some money in the process because Ga-N is a more efficient technology. Just like your cell phone used to be a brick and now it’s the size of a half a deck of playing cards, the G/ATOR radar antenna that I was speaking about a few minutes ago will become lighter, it will contain fewer components, but you’ll get the same performance because the technology is more efficient. It will also consume less power, and because there’s less stuff there will wind up costing less in the steady state because you don’t need as many components to get the same performance out of the antenna. So the combination of just doing some standard producibility turns on a design, keeping all of the processors refreshed so as to avoid any obsolescence concerns, and then taking advantage of this opportunity to switch semi-conductor technologies, all of that will take about 25% of the anticipated cost out of the program really before we even do it just because we can see our way clear to taking advantage of these continual technological advances.
So the Department of Defense has put a lot of energy over the course of the last couple years into establishing a cost baseline that we refer to as ‘will cost’ and then figuring out how to do better than that and achieve a ‘should cost’ scenario. I’m proud to say that G/ATOR has been held up within the Department of the Navy, which is of course who the Marine Corps works for in the grand scheme of things (particularly from an acquisition perspective), G/ATOR has been identified as a program that’s doing a good job in terms of moving from the will cost scenario to the should cost scenario and generating some real savings in the process. We’re very proud of that and look forward to seeing it come to fruition as we move into the production years.
Tell us about the main challenges for the G/ATOR system as you move into the production years
Sure. It comes in a couple of flavors. Obviously the technology we’re talking about enables us to get as much performances as we can out of a right-sized expeditionary form factor, so there’s always a degree of challenge with that, but right now our prime contractor Northrop Grumman appears to be meeting that challenge. Apart from that there’s a little bit of expectation management I have to deal with because this is a highly capable design solution and as I was saying earlier, each time you want to do an additional mission you just write some additional software that injects those algorithms, and that processing, and those displays, and you’ve got another mission done by the same radar. Some of the folks I work for, particularly on the operational side of the Marine Corps are looking for the ultimate capability in the first round. Whereas here we have a real opportunity and the reasonable way to approach the problem is to deliver the capability incrementally and build it up over time rather than trying to deliver the complete solution on the first try. If the hardware is there, and the growth potential of the software, you can always upgrade them, so reminding the leaders of the Marine Corps who are used to improvising, adapting, and overcoming that we need to take a little time and get each component right before we go and achieve the ultimate capability a few years down the road, occasionally that can be a bit of a challenge.
Also every program in the government nowadays feels great budgetary pressure. The American people have clearly spoken and asked us to do more program without more resources. The point being we need to be as efficient as we can. There’s always some pressure in that direction too, which is why that will cost – the ‘should cost’ progression I was talking about earlier has been so important for us. Not only is it the right thing to do in terms of delivering the most efficient solution of the Marines, it’s also the most responsible thing to do in the context of being steward to taxpayer dollars and trying to get the best value for our armed forces. Meanwhile the other services, the Army, the Air Force, and the Navy are all looking at their next generation systems too and at some level they’ve all touched this Gallium-Nitride technology as well. So working out that multi-variant equation as to when do you move to the next generation of technology, is there enough risk out of it, is there enough cost avoidance taking place as to where it’s the truly efficient thing to do, these are the challenges that we look to balance every day.
Because we are not a small program we get a lot of oversight, as it should be, from the folks at the Pentagon. At the end of the day we’re going to spend a couple billion tax payer dollars over a couple of decades doing this program so we get our fair share of oversight from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Dept. of the Navy, congress, and a few folks in between. Sometimes satisfying all that oversight on a given day, especially when you approach a major decision like award the first production contract, can be a little daunting, but it’s a part of doing a hard thing for the first time, which is what we’re all trying to do on behalf of delivering the best possible capability.