Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Radar Fallibility

I constantly hear from commenters about the infallibility of radar.  For example, I’ve repeatedly stated that it is quite likely most missile defense engagements will start at the horizon and yet there are always people quoting some maximum radar range and stating, with absolute certainty, that an E-2 Hawkeye, for example, will unfailingly detect the missiles and enable engagements hundreds of miles out.  Well, here’s a documented example of a Hawkeye’s (two actually!) failure to detect a low flying, inbound target. (1)

Note: thanks to Navy Matters commenter, “FM” for the link. (1)

The exercise in question occurred shortly after Desert Storm.  A B-52 bomber was tasked with attempting to reach attack range, inside 200 miles, against the USS Ranger and its air wing.  The defending force consisted of two E-2 Hawkeyes, F-14s for CAP, EA-6Bs, S-3s, and A-6s.  The short version is that the B-52 got within 20 miles of the carrier before being detected and announcing its presence.

This was a giant, hulking B-52, not some small, sleek, wave-clipping missile!

Radar is NOT the infallible, all-seeing, omniscient eye that so many believe. 

This is analogous to the documented Cold War exercise of a carrier group sitting off the Russian coast and remaining undetected for an extended period.

In the real world, detection of any object by any means is a challenge.  We need to keep that reality firmly in mind as we discuss the various Navy plans and concepts that all assume perfect situational awareness on our part and zero awareness on the enemy’s part.  The reality will be quite different and that reality strongly suggests that many of our plans and concepts desperately need to be re-evaluated.


(1) Username: FM, Navy Matters, “USS Boxer – A Second Drone”, August 5, 2019 at 11:36 PM


  1. "The short version is that the B-52 got within 20 miles of the carrier before being detected and announcing its presence."

    But, there's more to the story worth mentioning.

    From the link:

    "Five minutes later, with pictures to prove it, the B-52 flies by the Ranger at an altitude below the flight deck, probably 50 feet off the water. Literally, it had been flying at 100 feet or less for several hundred miles, its Electronic Warfare Officer did a great job at detecting and evading our radars."

    "Oh, boy! We got yelled at and our CO got called into the CAGs office and got yelled at, too."

    "Later that night we were having cocktails in my stateroom when one of the F-14 RIOs stopped by for a drink. “Yeah, we saw the thing on our radar. We were just screwing around. Didn’t feel like chasing it.”"

    Putting the F-14 RIO's comments aside, it seems the Air Force came ready to play. Avoiding detection from an E-2 is no mean feat. And, a peer or near peer would operate in the same manner.

    I'm not sure what lessons learned came out of this, but it would be interesting to hear what the bomber crew had to say.

    1. Does it seriously seem believable to you that an F-14 would see the target, make no call, and take no action? Or, does it seem far more likely that someone was tweaking a Hawkeye crew while drinking?

    2. I thought the same as well, which is why I put that comment aside. It could also have been an embellishment by Picken too. But, as Picken said this was a tired crew at the end of their deployment, so its possible the F-14 RIOs weren't playing along.

      Either way, this was a good example of the kind of training we should be doing today. And, it would be interesting to know if this has happened again.

    3. I mean, it's like the issue with the Fitsgerald, McCain, and Helge Instaad collisions - the best sensors in the world are useless if the operators aren't using them correctly.

      That said, let's not forget that Picken's crew was coming back from a combat deployment - this was immediately after Desert Storm. I wouldn't underestimate the lack of fucks to give from a tired crew that doesn't give a shit anymore. I'm reminded of something one of my Singaporean buddies told me: they're in the jungle on maneuvers, they have the "enemy" dead to rights, and his Platoon Sergeant goes, "ok guys we have two options, we can either kill them all and then be stuck here some more doing more training, or we can throw the fight and get killed. I dunno about you guys, but I've been out here in this jungle for a week and I wanna go home."

      The platoon threw the fight, got "killed", and went home. :V

    4. The F-14 story sounds more like "I saw a blip on the screen, I ignored it because it was faint and I was uncertain. I trusted that if something really was there, the E-2 or the fleet would have detected it before me. I f***Ed up. Now I'm going to act like my error was intentional, and I was just too cool for school."

      Like a highschool boy tripping on the B-ball court in front of his crush. "I meant to do that. Sports are stupid anyway.wanna catch a movie later?"

  2. The real bad part is, realistically, the situation is probably a lot worse now than in the 80s. E-2D is better than an older E-2C but everything else on a carrier today? F14 crews only did A2A,intercepts, etc with only towards the end of the Tomcat a little bombing, I find it hard to believe they wouldn't chase every bogey and if they didn't, what you expect from an SH or F35C today when A2A isnt near the same priority or training as in the 80s? We were facing the Soviet Union for decades so intercept was top priority, now? We looking for terrorists, small bands, third world nation actors, etc...I seriously doubt today's crews are as sharp as F14 crews, let alone what they are flying....SH and F35C are ok but no where near what a modern F14 would look like or dedicated A2A-interceptor-long range CAP fighter USN needs.

    1. I'm a little off topic of the post. But your comment really shows the utility of having specialized equipment instead of general purpose. The specialized gear forces you to specialize your training. Even more than gear, sweat equity in training determines task competence. Better to have a real sniper with a .22 than a nonshooter with the latest greatest sniper rifle.

  3. The good news is that the enemy has the same challenge. Atmospheric conditions, ground clutter, gaps in coverage and more still means opportunities for penetration. Stealth is just a shorter detection range under ideal conditions not invisibility.
    And there is also understanding and processing what the radar does see. As an Air Force pilot once said when asked how he would detect an F-117: “I’d just look for a sparrow moving at 500 knots”.
    Coming at a Chinese target during monsoon weather or a tomahawk masking it’s approach with a flight plan through mountain passes or other such tactics for aircraft or ships can still achieve some surprise. As often as the old days? No. But we need to plan an train to exploit an weakness instead of depending solely on how “stealthy” a plane or ship is. Great training can still beat good tech.

  4. As non-naval, non military, I am curious why aircraft with active radar (especially search aircraft) seem to be considered immune to targeting by radar-seeking countermeasures..

    1. Effectively, they are not.

      Historically, the large long-range missiles that could be used to target an AWACs or Aegis style radar would be easily detected by the radar it would be homing in on. The target radar would shut down and take evasive action/deploy countermeasures.

      In modern times such a missile could be designed to have a stealthy front profile, and to fly to the last known transmitter location before using a backup sensor (radar or FLIR) to find the target ship or aircraft. It could even glide approach to reduce IR its own IR signature.

      Historically, missiles have even been designed and modified to "Home on Jam"; in short to lock onto a target by locking onto it's Electronics counter-measures. Using ECM and Chaff/flares can make you more of a target.

      In the future, missiles and drones could be designed to detect and/or home on to practically any emitter; such as a ships WIFI networks or satellite links.

      IMHO the entire DOD is blind to just how vulnerable the technology they rely on can be used to effectively target the users. Especially if the opfor is using cheap dumb unjammable ordinance (bombs, Artillery,and rockets) to saturate the general vicinity of a US transmitter.

      And we can't go silent. We don't have the discipline. Someone,somewhere on our side will have a radar,radio,cellphone,Xbox,cordless drill, or coffee-maker transmitting. And a halfway smart enemy will barrage that transmitter with cheap ordinance until they make something bleed.

    2. Funny story: my work center recently ordered new drills, we were surprised to learn they come equipped with WIFi transmitters. The manufacturer thought it would be cool if tools could report location,usage, battery charge operating temp, and a whole bunch of additional data to the user(s).

      Everything transmits. Everything. It can't turn it all off. You can't hunt it all down. We can't live without it.

    3. "why aircraft with active radar (especially search aircraft) seem to be considered immune to targeting by radar-seeking countermeasures.."

      They are not and that susceptibility is increasing steadily. Both the Chinese and Russians now have very long range air-to-air missiles intended for this very task.

      In the past, the 'immunity' was due to lack of long range A2A missiles combined with locating the AWACS type aircraft well back from any potential enemy. That tactic is no longer viable.

  5. Seems like a point for levity

    "...if the pilot's good, see, I mean, if he's really..sharp, he can barrel that baby in so low [he spreads his arms like wings and laughs], you oughtta see it sometime, it's a sight. A big plane like a '52. VRROOM! There's jet exhaust, fryin' chickens in the barnyard."

    Gen. Tugidson from Dr. Starangelove

    Anyway I don't buy the tired deflection. A face value the story suggests the haert of the problem with most navy (or Pentagon testing in general)testing - It is too scripted and never tries to model the worst case situations. I would think were I an Admiral this kind of a result deserves a replay. So let USN send out a fresh crew but send out 6 b-52s, a couple just loaded with MALDs and freedom to plan any approach they want and use all their drones.

  6. Let's not forget the one about the Burke that sailed through their own friendly fleet formation in total emcon and avoided detection.

    Yes, radar can fail you.


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