Alongside the aircraft of the next Eurofighter tranche, “Quadriga,” many other current-generation Eurofighters, still fitted with the CAPTOR-M mechanical radar, will also be receiving the new Mk1 radar from HENSOLDT via hardware and software updates over the next few years. Instead of a mechanically scanned antenna, it boasts an electronically scanned antenna with more than 1,500 radiating elements. The ASEA (active electronically scanned array) technology underpinning the ECRS Mk1 combines ultra-high-resolution surveillance of the entire airspace with faster automatic detection and tracking of far more targets, as well as enhanced missile guidance. At the same time, it offers increased resistance against attempted interference, thus improving the survival prospects of the Eurofighter, even in intense conflict situations.
Self-protection systems issue a warning as soon as the jet is picked up by a radar; they also detect hostile threats and can initiate countermeasures. In addition, the Euro Defensive Aids Sub System (“EuroDASS”) PRAETORIAN records and classifies all radar signatures using specific national mission data. Depending on the scenario, the pilot will be made aware of threats such as anti-aircraft systems and rockets as part of the situation report, with countermeasures taken either manually or automatically. These measures range from simple electronic interference techniques and the launching of decoy flares through to complex 3-D flight manoeuvre sequences and false-target techniques. In order to further optimize these essential protective features, HENSOLDT is working with consortium partners on the new PRAETORIAN eVolution self-protection system. Its technologies, modular system architecture, and far-reaching integration with the electronic Mk1 radar provide pilots in the German and Spanish fleets with effective self-protection at all times – from the equipping through to the decommissioning of the Eurofighter.
If a Eurofighter is grounded due to a technical fault involving the radar or the self-protection system, action must be taken swiftly. Therefore, highly specialized HENSOLDT experts from the Technological Diagnostic Cell support the German air force by providing diagnostic, maintenance, and repair services at the Eurofighter squadron bases in Neuburg an der Donau and Laage, near Rostock. Thanks to their experience, which encompasses many years of close cooperation with the air force and the diagnostic teams of other Eurofighter nations, they are able to get the jets airborne again in next to no time. The diagnostic equipment RATE (radar automatic test equipment) – developed by HENSOLDT and expandable on a modular basis – is also used by other Eurofighter nations around the world; alongside fault detection, it also facilitates recertification for the aircraft’s next mission.
The helmet tracking system (HTS) developed by HENSOLDT South Africa detects in real time the direction in which the Eurofighter pilot is currently looking. As such, it is able to aim or set targets simply through eye contact. All fed-in information automatically follows the line of sight. On request, the helmet can also be fitted with a night vision device. Since the start of series production in 2008, HENSOLDT has supplied more than 700 helmets with night vision capability – just one example of the many items of kit and equipment that the company tailors to the requirements of the Eurofighter.
"Our missions are not quite like those you see in Top Gun"
Nicola Winter was Germany’s second-ever female fighter jet pilot and one of only three female Eurofighter pilots in the German air force. She now flies helicopters and works as an aerospace engineer at the German Aerospace Center (DLR e.V.).
What does it take to be a Eurofighter pilot?
The pilots of Eurofighters and other fighter jets are not highfliers. We simply do a very unusual job that requires a specific set of skills. The Eurofighter itself is extremely easy to fly. The exciting challenge is actually keeping track of so much information, so many tactics, and so many highly specialized systems during a mission.
And what does the Eurofighter bring to the table?
The Eurofighter is a multipurpose fighter jet that is suitable for a broad range of highly diverse deployment scenarios. As a generation 4.5 fighter jet, it already provides the pilot with excellent computer assistance. We fly the aircraft alone, without a weapon systems officer on board, and are required to handle highly complex missions and scenarios, both air to air and air to ground. To do so, we need excellent sensors and information processing to enable swift and precise implementation.
When does this sensor and radar technology become the difference between success and failure?
Our missions are not quite like those you see in Top Gun. We don’t just lock eyes with our enemies at a distance of 50 meters. The process begins when there are some two, three, four hundred kilometres between us and the enemy. That is why the radar acts as our eye. The better its range, resolution, presentation of information, and ease of use, the better I am as a pilot. A mission without radar would be akin to coming under attack in a building at night, with someone suddenly switching off the lights.
What stages have you seen for yourself in the evolution of radar technology and how have they changed the way in which people and sensors interact?
I still know Phantom pilots who would sit in the cockpit with pen and paper, making crosses to indicate the location of enemies. In the Tornado, I then had a radar on board with a relatively short range – and that was solely designed to identify targets on the ground. In the air, I was reliant on others telling me where my enemies were. In those days, the radar was operated by a weapon systems officer, who would adjust all kinds of cogs in order to manually set the width of the radius, the various frequency bands, the range, and the different radar modes. In the Eurofighter, this is all done automatically.
From a technological standpoint, what would you like to see in the next radar generation? Where is there still room for improvement?
HENSOLDT is currently developing an electronically scanned radar for the next generation of the Eurofighter. What advantages does this offer the pilot?
It represents a further significant improvement in terms of target resolution and range. It tells me at an earlier stage that enemies are heading toward me and how many of them there are. While I may only gain about ten extra seconds, these are extremely valuable, allowing me to determine my own tactics and respond correctly. What’s more, an electronic radar can detect and track far more targets simultaneously. This makes it easier to see the whole picture, especially when facing enemies who have a numerical advantage.
What is your view on the use of AI in fighter jet missions?
As a fighter jet pilot, I currently have to memorize hundreds of different hostile aircraft, antiaircraft systems, tanks, and ships – and then recognize and evaluate them on my screen. Here, AI can help us with visual detection patterns, especially when it comes to compliance with our rules of engagement. These form a highly complex set of rules that accounts for the majority of our work as pilots. For example, it may be the case that I am only authorized to pick up an enemy aircraft on my radar if it is heading toward me at a speed of more than 420 knots, at an altitude of over 10,000 feet, and at a 30-degree angle. Currently, I have to analyse all this myself in the air and save the information accordingly. Here, AI could potentially make an extremely valuable contribution, allowing me to concentrate on making decisions.
Among other things, HENSOLDT is working on the Future Combat Air System (“FCAS”). This is scheduled to become fully deployable around the year 2040. Why is it taking so long to develop?
We are now making a direct leap to the sixth generation of fighter jets. This will be a “system of systems,” that is, an interconnected military system comprising manned and unmanned system components that can be flexibly deployed within the network. This requires a very great number of technological quantum leaps – and that takes time. On top of that, this is an international program involving many different partners from a variety of nations. A mammoth task.
In your opinion, how will fighter jet missions change over the next few years?
The fundamental problems that we are seeking to solve with the military and fighter jets are not going to change. There are probably always going to be people who wish to inflict violence on others or drive them from their homes. The more precisely we can prevent them – while keeping outlay and, most importantly, damage to a minimum – the more successful we will be. That has to be our aim. We should endeavour to be so capable and effective that others don’t have any inclination to engage in conflict. Then we will have done our job.