Geek Out

This X-Band Radar System Is What Keeps Iran And Israel From Nuking Each Other

One hundred US soldiers — the only foreign troops in all of Israel — are stationed atop Mt. Keren, deep in the Negev Desert. Their mission: To monitor Iranian airspace 1600km to the Northeast for any sign of a missile launch. Their weapon: The THAAD radar, the most advanced mobile radar array on Earth.

Originally known as the Missile defence Agency’s Forward-Based X-Band Radar-Transportable (FBX-T) system but now designated as the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance, AN/TPY-2, it is a high-resolution, X-band radar array that has been integrated into missile interceptor systems like the Ballistic Missile defence System (BMDS) and Terminal High Altitude Area defence (THAAD) — hence the nickname, THAAD radar. It can also take its cues from nearby Aegis sites or overhead early warning spy satellites, as well as take command of those same Aegis systems or launch a Ground Based Interceptor (GBI) against incoming threats.

The AN/TPY-2 is designed to search, acquire, track and differentiate inbound threats. It’s a highly mobile, flexible, self-powered system capable of being deployed worldwide by land, sea, or air to provide additional early warning against ballistic missile launches. The AN/TPY-2 is composed of four subsystems: the antenna unit (comprising more than 25,000 X-band modules with an aperture surface area of 9m&sup2), the electronics unit, a cooling unit, and the prime power source — either from a generator or the local grid.

The AN/TPY-2 has two modes of operation, either as a forward-based system (as in Israel) or as a terminal in a larger missile shield defence scheme such as THAAD. In forward-based mode, the AN/TPY-2 runs the show. When it detects a missile launch, it begins tracking the object, its flight path, and ballistics. It then shunts that info into a secondary system for detailed analysis before transmitting its findings back to the Command and Control unit for human verification. Once the C&C confirms the threat, the system launches counter-measures. In terminal mode, AN/TPY-2 acts more like a cog in a wheel, working closely with the integrated weapons system (say, THAAD) to detect, track, and destroy the threat.

This advanced warning is invaluable on the battlefield. It allows friendly forces more time to react to incoming threats, thereby increasing their defensive capabilities. That means that missiles fired from North Korea can be intercepted over the Sea of Japan, not Northern Japan and rockets leaving Tehran can be dealt with potentially before they even exit Iranian airspace. And it is especially valuable given the AN/TPY-2′s stellar track record.

Since testing began in 2005, the AN/TPY-2 has yet to miss a target in over 50 system flight test missions and over a thousand satellite tracking exercises. “It’s a very sophisticated, eye-watering type of system, with a very powerful capability of precision,” an unnamed US missile expert told Time. “It was an X-band radar which was used in Operation Burnt Frost when we shot down that satellite from an Aegis ship several years back that was in a low, decaying orbit. We didn’t just hit a bullet with a bullet, we hit a spot on a bullet.” Indeed, the portable radar system is so sensitive it can identify and track a game of catch up to 2,900 miles away.

That sensitivity is especially useful for Israeli forces. The system’s capability for near-instantaneous warning of missile launches provides Israeli authorities an additional seven minutes or so of lead time to sound air raid sirens, and launch at least two rounds of GBIs if necessary. And shooting down the threat sooner increases the likelihood of wreckage hitting less densely-populated areas. However, this system does have two drawbacks, which is why some Israeli lawmakers refer to it as the “golden handcuffs.”

First, while the US shares all data regarding potential inbound strikes with its Israeli ally, the US does not share all collected data. This tethers any potential Israeli response to an American chain of command located in California, at the US Missile Defense Agency. “We share a lot, but there’s a valve on the pipeline, and it’s a one-way valve,” a Western military official involved in the program told Time. Second, the hyper-accurate detection works both ways. AN/TPY-2 is just as capable of noticing an Israeli surprise first strike against Iran as it is the other way round. This prevents both sides from throwing up missiles willy-nilly ;and that fact alone could be keeping us from World War III. [Raytheon - BI - Time - Missile Threat - Wikipedia - Top Image: Missile defence Agency , Side Images: Raytheon]