Acknowledging that “today’s G/ATOR isn’t quite what they’re looking for,” Bond asserted, “it does have the potential to go there.
“If we move G/ATOR into that next-generation gallium nitride semiconductor technology, it becomes very similar to what they’re looking for,” he said. “Now, I’m not ready to predict that they will join the program. But certainly we can say with confidence that, when looking at the other services’ next-generation radar requirements, that transition into GaN technology not only makes our program better by saving us cost, weight, and money, but it also gives us a greater potential to meet the needs of the other services on their next-generation radars.”
Moving into GaN technology will also expand the expeditionary envelope for G/ATOR.
According to Bond, the current system design requires a full 60 kilowatts (kW) of power from the system generator. Since the carburetion changes on that generator when the air thins at higher altitudes, the net result is that the generator fall slightly short of spec power output.
“What that means is that our system currently needs every bit of 60 kW to deliver its desired performance,” Bond explained. “If you take it high enough in altitude to where the generator is only providing 55 kW, G/ATOR’s performance is going to start to fall off. And we’re still looking at how graceful that degradation will be as we go up in altitude.”
Bond noted that the current operational threshold is 4,000 feet in elevation but that the objective operating elevation is 10,000 feet. “But get us into GaN technology and we will only need about 50 kW out of a 60 kW generator. Plus it’s a lighter weight system so it can be moved around even easier. And suddenly we might be operating at 10,000 feet and contemplating 12,000.
“That’s a very specific example of how going to the lighter and more power-efficient technology increases our operational envelope,” he said. “It’s no secret that right now we are in Afghanistan where there is plenty of terrain over 4,000 feet. And you would like to put your radar high up, where it has views as far and as wide as possible. At some of those higher elevations, the performance might be a little bit compromised in our current GaAs technology. But you get us into GaN and those restrictions pretty much go away.”
With all going well on the G/ATOR program itself, the biggest change in the program office over the last year has been an expansion of related program responsibilities.
“Back in January 2012, Secretary [Sean] Stackley [assistant secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition] issued an Acquisition Decision Memorandum that brought some additional program work into this office,” Bond related. “It’s a collection of projects known as GBAD – ground-based air defense – and basically it starts with the man-portable Stinger as it is currently deployed by the Marines in our [Low Altitude] Air Defense [LAAD] battalions. Along the way we will modernize that capability somewhat, evolving it towards a more automated system and G/ATOR will be the fire control radar that directs it all.”
Cautioning that the long-term project vision was still being formulated, he offered, “The 10-year strategic view is that downstream these programs will intersect. G/ATOR will continue to evolve, and in parallel, we will bring forward the missile defense capability beyond the current ‘Stinger on the shoulder of a Marine’ concept. The result is that five to 10 years from now we will get to a more automated, more capable system in which G/ATOR will be the eyes and the next-generation weapon will be the teeth.”
Asked about future challenges, Bond was quick to cite the universal focus on demonstrating program cost efficiencies to safeguard precious taxpayer dollars.
He also acknowledged the fact that planned movement to GaN technology does come with some risk.
“Moving into that new technology is not risk free,” he said. “If it was already out there, we would be using it today. Instead it’s a move that we have tried to time to where the risk is a little down and the potential gain is very much up.
“One of the things that will bring the risk down further is that the other services are also making some basic investments in the GaN semiconductor technology,” he continued. “It’s not just the Marine Corps, but the Navy and Air Force specifically are also making investments in GaN, somewhat in anticipation of their next-generation sensor systems. So we have the opportunity to come into that technology right behind their efforts to exploit the fact that they have reduced some of the risk and driven the cost out of it.
“But even having others go first does not mean that it will be totally risk free when we go there,” he cautioned. “There will be some inherent risk in the transition. But we are trying to mitigate that risk by letting some of these other explorations go first, and be our ‘canary in that gallium nitride coalmine’ if you will.”