How Patriot Missiles Will Stay a Step Ahead of the Enemy

August 28, 2015

Popular Mechanics:

​When the United States moves Patriot missile batteries, people pay attention. Patriots are the go-to, land-based weapons system that the United States and 12 of its allies use to defend airspace against aircraft, cruise missiles, drones, and ballistic missiles. Their presence changes the strategic balance of wherever they appear. That’s why the world certainly took notice last week when theU.S. removed two Patriot batteries from Turkey, a signal that they may be needed elsewhere in the Middle East, Europe, or the Korean Peninsula.

Patriots have been around since the Cold War, but they’ve been upgraded so many times they are virtually unrecognizable. The U.S. has invested more than $2.6 billion in Patriot since 2013 alone and has committed to fielding the system until at least 2048. Selling Patriot abroad also means big money; its vendor Raytheon has scored $5 billion in new contracts around the world since December.

So keeping this system viable is a big business, too, and Raytheon invests millions in researching new ways to keep Patriot technology ahead of the enemy’s. Officials at Raytheon told PopMech that the U.S. government recently cleared a next-generation Patriot system radar for export, and added that they’ve demonstrated the pilot array to a number of countries, including the U.S. and Poland. It’s all based on one little material that could make a Patriot’s radar more powerful and more efficient.

A souped-up, more sensitive radar

 Over the past 15 years, Raytheon has invested more than $150 million of its own money into something called Gallium Nitride, or GaN. The new Patriot radar uses the material in a new semiconductor that promises vast gains in power and efficiency.Today’s radars typically use Gallium Arsenide semiconductors, but the GaN semiconductors can operate at higher voltages, greater radio frequency power density, and smaller sizes than their predecessors. GaN can run hotter and cheaper than GaAs semiconductors—in essence, they can handle higher amounts of energy.

Why is this beneficial? It all comes down to the way modern radar works. Instead of swiveling a radar to scan the sky, new arrays use transmit/receive antenna modules that are mounted by the thousands on flat faces to steer beams electronically. Hence the name Active Electronic Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

Having a souped-up, more sensitive AESA radar is an obvious advantage, but there’s something else: The small, powerful GaN panels can be mounted on the reverse sides of a flat-faced AESA radar chassis, enabling the system to sense incoming attacks from 360 degrees…

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