Lockheed Martin is being tapped to continue to the next phase of its Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block II Infrared Search and Track (IRST) upgrade program. Awarded by Boeing, the $108 million contract
allows for the development, platform integration, flight test and qualification of the IRST21
Block II sensor system installed on the US Navy's Super Hornet
fighter aircraft. IRST21 is a multi-function sensor system that has been designed to provide long-range detection and tracking of airborne threats in radar-denied environments. It is a passive, long-range sensor system that uses infrared search and track technology to detect and track heat coming off the engines of enemy aircraft. The IRST21 autonomously detects and tracks airborne targets at long ranges, and can merge the data with the fighters' other sensors to provide a multi-dimensional view of threats. The Navy plans to field a 170 Block II sensor across its F-18 fleet.
F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block IIs fighters are beginning to enter service with the US Navy and Australia, carrying significantly improved AN/APG-79 AESA radars and other electronic upgrades. Recent years have seen another spreading improvement within global fighter fleets, however: Infra-Red Search & Track (IRST) systems that provide long range thermal imaging against air and ground targets. Most of these deployments have been on Russian (MiG-29 family, SU-30 family) and European (Eurofighter, Rafale, Gripen NG) fighters, or special American exports (UAE’s F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcons, Korea & Singapore’s F-15K/SG Strike Eagles).
That absence puts American fighters behind an important curve. This IRST approach can defeat radar stealth in some instances, by focusing on engine exhaust, or on the friction of the aircraft as it powers through the atmosphere. As F-14 pilots will recall, long range electro-optics also offer positive identification, conferring the ability to use a plane’s aerial missiles at their full ranges. Best of all, IRST offers a passive way to locate and target enemy aircraft, without triggering the target’s radar warning receivers. When coupled with medium-range IR missiles like some Russian AA-10 variants, France’s MICA-IR, or even future versions of AMRAAM NCADE, an IRST system offers a fighter both an extra set of medium-range eyes, and a stealthy air-to-air combat weapon. Programs are underway to give some American “teen series” fighters this capability, albeit in a somewhat unusual way.