Before it passes into a mere historical footnote, let’s take a closer look at the once vaunted Dual Band Radar (DBR) that was to equip the Ford and Zumwalt classes. The DBR combines an X-Band and S-Band radar in array panels versus the old style rotating radars.
Let’s take a moment and recall what the old, mechanical, rotating radars were. There were two main ones:
- SPS-40/49 - Two dimensional (bearing and range), long range (256 nm), air search, L-band (851-942 MHz)
- SPS-48 – Three dimensional (bearing, range, and height), long range (250 nm), air search, 7.5 – 15 rpm, mechanically rotated, electronically steered beams for elevation, 4500 lb, E & F-band (2-4 GHz)
There were also additional radars for navigation, air traffic control, fire control illumination, etc.
By comparison, the DBR consists of several flat panel arrays of two types:
- SPY-3 – X-band (8-12 GHz), low altitude targeting and horizon search, target illumination and datalink for SM-2 and ESSM (2)
- SPY-4 Volume Search Radar (VSR) – S-band, 3-face, long range search/track and cueing for the SPY-3 (2)
There is a great deal of overlap between the two systems, as described by Raytheon,
“Many search and track functions, such as cued acquisition and precision track (providing high update rate, fire control quality data) can be allocated to either or both frequencies, automatically or through command and control direction.” (2)
This provides a measure of redundancy and resilience to damage in combat. Along the same lines, the presence of two overlapping radars allows the degrading effects of weather to be minimized by being able to switch between them as conditions warrant (2).
The system uses a total of six array faces, three for each band. Each of the arrays covers 120 deg with three of them combining to provide 360 deg coverage.
The total DBR system is reported to cost $500M (1).
The DBR was originally intended to outfit the Zumwalt and Ford classes but will now only be installed on the first Ford carrier (3). For Zumwalt, the SPY-4 has been deleted as a cost savings measure. Deletion of the SPY-4 from the Zumwalt DBR will reportedly save $180M (1).
The Navy concluded, correctly, that a carrier just doesn’t need a radar system this capable since the carrier has no long range AAW missiles and would be unlikely to radiate in combat, depending instead on shared data pictures provided by Aegis escorts and E-2 Hawkeye aircraft. This was acknowledged by RAdm. Thomas Moore, PEO Carriers, in an article presented by Defense News website,
“… analysis showed the carrier didn't need all the system's capabilities.” (3)
Related side note: wouldn’t it have been nice (and logical) to perform the analysis prior to designing the carrier? But, I digress …
DBR was slated to replace several different legacy radar systems that performed air traffic control, air search, navigation, and fire-control, etc. This offers a potentially significant increase in efficiency and reduction in maintenance and personnel. However, by combining the functions of several legacy radars into one system, a single point of multiple failures is created. A single failure can potentially cost the ship its detection, tracking, targeting, navigation, air traffic control, and fire control functions. That’s a steep price to pay for a single failure. This is a case where efficiency is trumped by separation and redundancy, the foundations of survivability. In other words, combat resilience trumps cost effectiveness. This is yet another example of how trying to run a combat organization like a business is a flawed concept.
Another key aspect of the DBR system, just as with Aegis, is complexity and maintainability. Aegis suffered from a fleet wide degradation serious enough to cause the Navy to form one of its infamous Admiral chaired panels. I have seen no public documentation regarding the results of that remediation effort. I do not know what state the Aegis system is in, today. Having seen no grand pronouncements of success, I have to assume that the system still suffers from systemic degradation.
DBR will be even more complex and common sense suggests that it, too, will suffer from maintenance and reliability problems. Even worse, DBR is almost a one-of-a-kind system. The Navy is highly unlikely to incur the cost of setting up technician schools and creating a technician training program adequate to maintain the system. Similarly, the spare parts logistical train necessary to support the system is unlikely to be adequately established. We saw exactly this phenomenon play out with the nearly one-of-a-kind Enterprise/Long Beach radar systems which suffered from a lack of trained technicians and support and were, in relatively short order, abandoned.
It is a near certainty that the Ford’s radar system will never work as intended and will, in relatively short order, be abandoned and replaced.
On a closely related side note, the complexity and support issues lead, inexorably, to the question, is it better to have a bleeding edge radar system that can’t be maintained and never achieves its intended performance or to have a more basic system (like a mechanical, rotating system) that is utterly reliable, can be maintained at sea, and provides its maximum performance at all times?
In any event, there are lessons to be learned from the DBR program.
- Carriers don’t need highly capable radar systems since they don’t have highly capable weapons that require highly capable radars
- Carriers don’t radiate in combat; instead, they rely on data links from other aircraft and ships so, again, they don’t need sophisticated radars
- Performance analyses must be performed prior to ship design
- One of a kind systems are not sustainable
- Cost and operational efficiency do not trump combat effectiveness
The DBR is fated to pass into the footnotes of history but we would do well to learn its lessons before it does.
(1)USNI News website, “PEO Carriers: CVN-79 Will Have a New Radar, Save $180M Compared to Dual Band Radar”, Megan Eckstein,
March 17, 2015,
(2)Raytheon website, What We Do > Products > Dual Band Radar,
(3)Defense News website, “Dual Band Radar Swapped Out In New Carriers”, Christopher P. Cavas,