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PM Ground Based Air Defense-Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar

PEO Land Systems Review

As the cornerstone of the Program Executive Office for Land Systems Program Management office for the Marine Corps Ground Based Air Defense (GBAD)-Ground/Air Task-Oriented Radar (G/ATOR), the AN/TPS-80 G/ATOR system is poised on the edge of low rate production, ready to provide Marines with a three-dimensional short-to-medium-range tactical radar designed to detect, identify, and track low-level cruise missiles, manned aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as well as rockets and mortar and artillery fire.

Developed by prime contractor Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems in Baltimore, Md., G/ATOR will replace legacy radar systems to perform air surveillance, cue air defense weapons, determine hostile indirect fire firing locations, and provide data to air traffic controllers.

“One system that will do everything from tracking that hostile UAV to vectoring the friendlies around the sky to watching for rockets, artillery, and mortars – so you can direct the counterfire.”

G/ATOR Program Manager Lee Bond characterized the AN/TPS-80 as “One system that will do everything from tracking that hostile UAV to vectoring the friendlies around the sky to watching for rockets, artillery, and mortars – so you can direct the counterfire.”

Just over one year ago, Bond was anticipating that G/ATOR was well on the way toward the successful completion of several months of testing that would provide the final evidence supporting a favorable low rate production decision.

AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Orientated Radar

Northrop Grumman Corporation and the U.S. Marine Corps Program Executive Office for Land Systems demonstrated the AN/TPS-80 Ground/Air Task-Orientated Radar (G/ATOR) system for senior Department of Defense leaders at the Pentagon, Oct. 6, 2011. Northrop Grumman photo

“The news surrounding G/ATOR is all good,” he enthused at that time, pointing to the fact that Northrop Grumman had recently delivered the first system to the Marine Corps after hardware and software development integration and testing at its factory in the Baltimore area.

That system underwent the first phase of developmental testing at the Surface Combat Systems Center (SCSC) Wallops Island in Eastern Virginia with follow-on developmental testing and operational assessments conducted at Yuma, Ariz.

In an era when the best laid plans frequently go awry, Bond continues his enthusiastic assessment of the past year’s activities. As of this writing, final test reports are being written and other documents are being updated in expectation of a Milestone C low rate production decision briefing in January 2014.

“Looking back and forward again, we are mostly where we expected to be on the program,” Bond said. “Like every other government agency, we’ve had a few ups and downs this past year; we’ve spent a little time on furlough and have seen our budgets reduced slightly through the process of sequestration. But we have endeavored to persevere.”

Bond admitted that there had been some hope to have the low rate production approval and related contract award at this point, but quickly clarified that G/ATOR has experienced some minor program delays.

“Where I thought we would be right now is through with all the testing and on the verge of awarding the first low rate production contract to Northrop Grumman,” he said. “But things have slowed down just enough that we have concluded all testing at Wallops Island very successfully and then transitioned to Yuma, which presents our most challenging operational environment. Basically, we found one ‘glitch’ while we were out there.”

Bond characterized the “glitch” as “times when the software was a little temperamental,” but quickly likened those instances as “a bit like an early version of Windows in that you can still use it; you just live with the temperamental aspect with the knowledge that it will be fixed in the next update. And that’s where we are now. We’ve gone through that process and seen the fix make the improvements that we expected it to.”

“So we basically stayed out at Yuma for two rounds of testing instead of just one,” he said. “We just completed the second round very successfully and we’re now looking toward ‘all systems go’ to move into that early low rate production phase. We just have to write some test reports, conduct some reviews, and complete the process of awarding that next contract.”

“But everything we forecast a year ago has or is coming true – just on a slightly stretched schedule from what we might have originally anticipated,” he added. “And that schedule stretch is only the result of everybody in the government being squeezed a little bit with regard to resources and then the extra round of testing at Yuma just to be sure that we had it right before we went ahead and committed ‘nine figures’ to our first low rate production contract.”

The Yuma testing was also where the program had the most direct interaction with Marines using G/ATOR in more of an operational mode in contrast to the engineering approach taken in earlier tests.

With government and industry technical and test experts supporting in the background, the Yuma testing was conducted by Marines from the MACCS-X (Marine Air Command and Control Squadron – Experimental) Training Squadron, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., and MAWTS-1 (Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One), based in Yuma.

Asked about any surprises that might have emerged over the past year, Bond offered the “positive surprise” of just how much the participating Marines liked the system.

Asked about any surprises that might have emerged over the past year, Bond offered the “positive surprise” of just how much the participating Marines liked the system.

“We knew that they would like it,” he began. “But basically the question I get from Marines is, ‘Can I take the older radar that I have and drive it off a cliff so that we can keep the G/ATOR and deploy with it instead?’ Unfortunately, there are only two of them in the world; one of which is being tested by the government while the other is a Northrop Grumman capital asset.”

Confirming that the recent Marine user comments came on the heels of previous U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) inquiries about how soon the system could deploy, Bond explained, “We are basically there. If directed by higher authority we could deploy it, although I wouldn’t recommend that because it still does have a few warts, which we will address as we move into low rate production. So if you wait just a couple of years, you can have the best one that we could possibly make, having learned what we have learned over the last couple years.”

“But even the one that we have is pretty darn good and has worked extremely well,” he continued. “And I suppose ‘if push came to shove’ we would whistle up the crew that just took it through the final rounds at Yuma and say, ‘OK Marines, you get to do it all again now, but this time on a contingency deployment scenario.’ And they would be proud to go do it, because everybody who touches this radar basically becomes a believer.”

“All the Marines who have seen this in action – those who have actually used it and those who have been playing the role of the on-scene commander tasking and then seeing the information it provides – have been extremely, extremely impressed with it and look forward to a time where we can give them one that we don’t insist on taking back,” he said.

In addition to the testing, the G/ATOR team has also continued to proceed on a separate technology pathway that will support the transition to G/ATOR’s current gallium arsenide (GaAs) semiconductor technology to a next-generation gallium nitride (GaN) semiconductor technology.

“I continue to be amazed at what this team can do,” Bond offered. “Because as much as we’ve focused on getting through testing, writing the reports, planning for the milestone, planning for the contract award, we have never flagged in carrying forward the parallel effort to mature the gallium nitride technology and a few other things, like redesign for producibility and process improvements. Those are sort of ‘three legs’ of making a system more affordable: putting in a more capable technology; improve the process you use to build it; or tweak the design so that it is easier to build.”

“We’ve worked in all those areas and discovered that the biggest bang for the buck is the transition to gallium nitride technology,” he said. “But we haven’t ignored the other aspects of the triad either. And our plan is still to enter low rate production and basically make what we had before with some very straightforward lessons learned and improvements injected into it. Then within two years we hope to shift to the more advanced design that is reflective of all those improvements that we will introduce to literally make it better, faster, and cheaper to produce. That’s all very much part of the plan forward.”

Future challenges have less to do with technology advances that funding decisions. But according to Bond, the G/ATOR program is well positioned for a leaner budgetary climate.

Emphasizing the importance of the Department of Defense Better Buying Power initiatives, Bond offered, “I couldn’t be prouder to say that, as good as all that ‘top cover’ is, we were already going there on this program. It’s truly gratifying when leadership says that we are all going to implement policy that is going to make our program better and then, when that policy rolls out to you, you see that you are already doing this stuff. And now we have a new taxonomy in which we can place the discussion.”

Bond characterized the future as “a very interesting place,” concluding, “Sometime after the Milestone C event we ought to be getting better insight into which version of the FY 14 and FY 15 budgets the president and Congress are leaning toward enacting. With the support of Headquarters Marine Corps, we’ve examined numerous scenarios to try to get ahead of that, and provide the complete spectrum of program possibilities. However the future unfolds, I remain confident the G/ATOR program will provide exceptional capability to the Marines and exceptional value to the American taxpayer.”

This article first appeared in the Marine Corps Outlook 2013-2014 Edition.


Scott Gourley is a former U.S. Army officer and the author of more than 1,500...

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