Lockheed Martin to build components for electro-optics infrared search and track sensors on Navy combat jets

Aug. 12, 2021
The Super Hornet combat aircraft IRST long-wave infrared detection sensors target enemy aircraft when the combat aircraft cannot use its radar.

PATUXENT RIVER NAS, Md. – U.S. Navy air combat experts are asking electro-optics engineers at Lockheed Martin Corp. to build 12 infrared receivers and 11 control processors for the infrared search and track (IRST) system aboard F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jet fighter-bomber.

Officials of the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., announced a $48.8 million order late last month to the Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control segment in Orlando, Fla., to provide these IRST components. The IRST enables the F/A-18E/F to detect, track, and attack enemy aircraft in a stealthy way without making its presence known.

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 Co. Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis is buying from Lockheed Martin, uses infrared search and track technology to detect and provide weapons-quality track solutions on potentially hostile aircraft.

Related: Boeing to upgrade electro-optical infrared search and track (IRST) systems for Navy jet fighter aircraft

The Navy and Boeing first flew the IRST Block II pod on an F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in late 2019. 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 U.S. 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 sensors fit 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.

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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: Three U.S. companies take-on challenges of next-generation electro-optical and radio-frequency sensors

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 order Lockheed Martin will do the work in Orlando and Ocala, Fla.; and Santa Barbara, Calif., and should be finished by February 2023. For more information contact Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control online at www.lockheedmartin.com, Boeing Defense, Space & Security at www.boeing.com/company/about-bds, or Naval Air Systems Command at www.navair.navy.mil.

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