Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build infrared search and track (IRST) sensors for F/A-18E/F combat aircraft

May 11, 2020
IRST Block II gives the F/A-18 improved optics and processing power to improve pilot situational awareness; it will be delivered to the Navy in 2021.

PATUXENT RIVER NAS, Md. – U.S. Navy air combat experts are asking electro-optics engineers at the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to build infrared search and track (IRST) sensors for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jet fighter-bomber to enable the aircraft to detect, track, and attack enemy aircraft in a stealthy way without making its presence known.

Officials of the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., announced a $112 million order late last month to the Boeing Co. Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis to build 16 infrared search and track Block II low-rate initial production IV units.

The Super Hornet combat aircraft IRST is a long-wave infrared detection sensors system that targets enemy aircraft in conditions where the Super Hornet cannot use its radar. The system, which Boeing is buying from the Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control segment in Orlando, Fla., uses infrared search and track technology to detect and provide weapons-quality track solutions on potentially hostile aircraft.

This order specifies four IRST systems for the U.S. Navy, and 12 for Australia.

Related: Boeing and Lockheed Martin to build stealthy infrared search and track (IRST) avionics for F-15C jet fighter

The Navy and Boeing first flew the IRST Block II pod on an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet late last year. IRST is a passive, long-range sensor incorporating infrared and other sensor technologies for accurate targeting.

The IRST Block II gives the F/A-18 improved optics and processing power, significantly improving pilot situational awareness, Boeing officials say. The Block II variant will be delivered to the US Navy in 2021, reaching initial operational capability shortly thereafter.

The IRST Block II is part of the Super Hornet Block III upgrades to keep the F/A-18 in active service for decades to come. Block III upgrades also include enhanced network capability, longer range with conformal fuel tanks, an advanced cockpit system, signature improvements, and an enhanced communications system.

The IRST fits on the front of the Super Hornet's centerline fuel tank. Three years ago Navy leaders approved a restructured program that foregoes full-rate production of Block I sensors and proceeds directly to the Block II system.

Related: Navy makes plans to deploy infrared search and track (IRST) sensor on F/A-18F Super Hornet combat jet fleet

The IRST passive search system consists of a passive longwave infrared receiver, a processor, inertial measurement unit, and environmental control unit. The infrared receiver, processor, and inertial measurement unit fit inside the sensor, which attaches to the front of the fuel tank mounted to the aircraft on the BRU-32 bomb rack.

The Navy developed the IRST Block I using components from the F-15K/SG aircraft's infrared receiver, which is based on the IRST design of the now-retired Navy F-14 Tomcat jet fighter. IRST Block II includes improvements to the infrared receiver and updated processors. The Navy intends to produce 170 IRST systems.

Even amid electronic attack or heavy RF and infrared countermeasures, IRST provides autonomous, tracking data that increases pilot reaction time, and enhances survivability by enabling first-look, first-shoot capability, Lockheed Martin officials say.

Infrared sensors like the IRST detect the heat from an aircraft's engine exhaust or even the heat generated by the friction of an aircraft as it passes through the atmosphere. Unlike radar, infrared sensors do not emit electronic signals, and do not give away their presence to adversaries.

Related: Infrared search and track (IRST) technology gives jet fighter aircraft stealthy vision

This ability can enable Super Hornet pilots to identify enemy aircraft at long ranges, and enable them to fire their air-to-air missiles at their maximum ranges.

Data from the IRST system can stand alone or fuse with the Super Hornet's other on-board sensor data situational awareness. Lockheed Martin also is developing an IRST pod that can be fitted to the F-15C and F-16 jet fighters.

On this contract Boeing and Lockheed Martin will do the work in Orlando, Fla., and in St. Louis, and should be finished by June 2023. For more information contact Boeing Defense, Space & Security online at, Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control at, or Naval Air Systems Command at

About the Author

John Keller | Editor-in-Chief

John Keller is the Editor-in-Chief, Military & Aerospace Electronics Magazine--provides extensive coverage and analysis of enabling electronics and optoelectronic technologies in military, space and commercial aviation applications. John has been a member of the Military & Aerospace Electronics staff since 1989 and chief editor since 1995.

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