At long last, UK’s ASTOR takes a bow

 - November 16, 2006, 9:06 AM

Making its debut this week at the Farnborough International show, Raytheon’s Airborne Stand-off Radar (ASTOR) system will be delivered to the Royal Air Force (RAF) in stages over the next year. Comprising five modified Bombardier Global Express business jets and eight ground stations, ASTOR is a major new ground surveillance capability for the UK. Raytheon is now looking for additional customers.

In the static park, invited guests can tour the number three ASTOR aircraft and one of the tactical ground stations mounted on a Steyr 6x6 vehicle. They will see three workstations onboard the aircraft and two in the vehicle, where image analysts can view and manipulate both synthetic aperture radar (SAR) maps and ground moving target imagery (GMTI). A larger ground station comprising up to four modules in 20-foot shipping containers is not on display here; two of these are being supplied for use by strategic and field commanders.

“ASTOR provides some unprecedented and transformational capabilities,” enthused Tom Kennedy, vice president for space and airborne systems at Raytheon in El Segundo, California. “It is the first active array radar for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) to be flown and exported,” he noted. The ASTOR builds on Raytheon’s experience in providing the high resolution imaging SAR for the U-2 spyplane.

But ASTOR is producing, “the cleanest imagery I have ever seen,” declared Kennedy. Moreover, with a long active antenna slung beneath the fuselage, the GMTI performance of ASTOR should be superior to previous systems.

Raytheon won the $1.2 billion fixed-price ASTOR contract in mid-1999. Before that, the UK spent 10 years defining its requirements. A business jet platform was favored because it could fly higher (40,000 feet-plus) than airliners, thereby extending the radar horizon and reducing the masking effect of high terrain. A requirement for air to air refueling was deleted, but the endurance is still over 10 hours.

Early development went well, although there was a complication when Raytheon sold its aircraft systems integration business at Greenville, Texas to L-3. However, Raytheon continued to manage the ASTOR integration at Greenville, where the modified airframe flew for the first time in May 2004.

But the first radar was damaged during bench tests at El Segundo, causing a one-year delay, which has not been recovered. The first flight to produce SAR imagery was in October last year, followed two months later by the first transmission to the ground (while at the same time displaying the radar map at the onboard station). GMTI was produced and displayed more recently, and not all the test points have yet been achieved, with respect to angles, speeds and altitudes.

However, Raytheon plans to deliver the number three aircraft on display here by September, along with the first ground station and training rigs. The UK Royal Air Force will operate ASTOR as No. 5 Squadron at Waddington, alongside its other airborne ISR assets, namely the E-3 Sentry AEW and the Nimrod R1 SIGINT platforms. Under a separate, $210-million contract, Raytheon will provide logistics support for 10 years.

Technology transfer and UK content are important factors in the ASTOR contract. System Design Authority is due to transfer to Raytheon Systems Ltd (RSL) in the UK next year. Earlier this year, the UK defense procurement minister mentioned publicly some transfer problems, but Kennedy said they were small, and had been resolved.  

RSL set up a dedicated facility at Broughton to fit the mission systems in all but the first aircraft, and all the ground stations. The company’s Glenrothes factory has provided the radar receiver/exciter and power supply, and the antenna mounting comes from Selex in Edinburgh. The 30 UK subcontractors include Chelton (radomes), General Dynamics UK (workstation software), Marshall Aerospace (shelters), Rolls-Royce (engines) and Ultra Electronics (narrowband datalink–the wideband link is from L-3 Communications in the U.S.).