On January 29 this year Thales conducted the first flight of its new Searchmaster radar, under development as part of the wide-ranging upgrade program for the French Navy’s Dassault Aviation Atlantique 2 (ATL2) maritime patrol aircraft. It was just two years after contract award and, according to Thales, demonstrated “the advanced state of development and maturity of the radar”.
The Searchmaster is an airborne surveillance radar that employs an active electronically scanned array (AESA) antenna, and is derived from qualified technologies developed for the RBE2 radar of the Dassault Rafale combat aircraft.
While the ATL2’s legacy Thales Iguane radar was tailored specifically for maritime patrol missions, the Searchmaster has multirole capabilities and is therefore able to detect both naval and land targets. Once fully integrated with the ATL2, it will be capable of fulfilling anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, maritime surveillance, ground surveillance and mapping, and air surveillance missions. The land mission in particular has taken on a new importance for the ATL2, which has successfully conducted overland intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) operations over Mali in 2013, and over Iraq since 2014.
According to Thales, the Searchmaster offers a range of 200 nautical miles against air and sea targets. Small stationary and moving maritime targets can be detected in all weather conditions and in high seas. Aerospace Testing International spoke with Anne-Sophie Malot, a Thales representative, about the status of the flight test campaign, which is due to last six months.
Prior to the first test flight of the radar, Thales made use of ground testing to prove the basic performance of the Searchmaster. “All necessary tests to validate the sensor technical capabilities and performance were performed in simulated environmental conditions,” says Malot, “as well as all the tests necessary to qualify the sensor as flyable. The main tool used on the ground was the anechoic chamber to test and calibrate the AESA antenna.”
The flight test effort is being undertaken by an integrated team that includes personnel from Thales, the French General Directorate for Armament (DGA), the French military flight test center, and the French Navy’s operational flight test and evaluation center (CEPA). During the campaign, the radar is being tested in real-life operating environments that include air-to-surface, air-to-ground and air-to-air operations.
“On board the ATL2 we mainly use high-density recording to be able to analyze an enormous volume of flight-recorded data on the ground,” Malot explains.
As well as ‘live’ radar target environments (ships, aircraft, ground targets), the radar is also tested using simulated targets. The flight test campaign is taking place at Istres and Cazaux, making use of dedicated flight test locations provided by the DGA Essais en vol. As of late April, the integrated team had already performed around 100 test flight hours and was in the middle of the flight test campaign.
“In this campaign, Dassault was in charge of developing the aircraft modification in preparation for the campaign,” Malot explains. “The DGA Essais en vol is responsible for the overall flight campaign and is in charge of operating the aircraft, designating the desired flight-testing scenarios from Thales specifications, and providing the required assets. CEPA is participating in aircraft operations and witnessing the development of the capability on behalf of the future Navy end-users. Finally, Dassault Aviation will be in charge of radar integration and testing of the whole combat system.”
Radar testing is reflecting the fact that the Searchmaster is intended to achieve very high-resolution radar images in a range of operating environments. “The intention is to cover all the environment and target types the radar is designed to cope with,” Malot confirms. “This includes air-to-surface, air-to-ground and air-to-air, including various sea states and sea behaviors.” The latter point is important considering the different radar returns found, for example, in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic seas, where the ATL2 routinely operates.
As well as live flight testing, the radar trials are also making use of computer simulations. “We make extensive use of computer simulations to support the radar development and testing,” Malot says. “While the flight test campaign is being performed in a relatively short period [a few months], computer simulations are used throughout the development of the radar before and after flight tests. Some may combine simulated environments with replays of flight test records.”
The first fully upgraded ATL2 should be re-delivered to the French Navy in 2019. The Searchmaster is also available for export and integration with fixed-wing, rotary-wing and unmanned platforms. The company confirmed a first foreign order for the Searchmaster with delivery of the first production radar early 2017. The Qatar Armed Forces also signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for the selection of the radar to equip its optionally piloted vehicles – aircraft (OPV-A).
While the Searchmaster is at the core of the upgrade program for the ATL2, it is one facet of a €400m (US$450m) effort that is being conducted by Dassault and Thales with the aim of keeping a 15-strong fleet of patrol aircraft in service. Further planned mission system upgrades include a digital sonobuoy acoustic processing system, the LOTI (Logiciel Opérationnel de Traitement de l’Information) mission software for subsystems integration, enhanced operator workstations, and a new L-3 Wescam MX-20 electro-optic/infrared (EO/IR) sensor. Other upgrade work will include structural refurbishment to extend service life out to planned retirement around 2033.
Thomas Newdick is an aviation and defense writer based in Berlin, Germany