Air Defense: June 7, 2004

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The United States is finally getting its air defense radars to talk to each other. For over thirty years, the U.S. Navy has been trying to implement the most obvious, and cheapest, improvement for air defense; integrating radar information. Since World War II, its been obvious that combining information from many radars provides a much better picture of whats out there. But until the 1970s, it was only possible to do this manually (taking radio messages from various radar operators and then manually updating a master map of the area covered by all the radars reporting in.) The new navy solution was an electronic CEC (Cooperative Engagement Capability) system, that automatically fed information from many radars to all the other radars in the network, thus allowing everyone to share everyone elses information. This was made possible by the 1990s, with the development of computer and communications technology that could handle it. 

CEC was also seen as a solution to dealing with low flying cruise missiles (that would only be picked up now and then by various different radars) and jamming (which can hide an attacking missile or aircraft most of the time, but not all the time.) CECs grid of many radars could defeat stealth as well. In addition, the CEC system allowed any anti-aircraft missile system in the network to fire on the enemy aircraft or cruise missiles. The navy also pointed out that by integrating army and air force radar systems into CEC networks, everyone would be better protected.

But all this effort and flawless logic wasnt enough to make it work. Getting a workable version of CEC took most of the 1990s. Then the navy had to get the money out of Congress to install CEC widely. That wasnt easy, as no enemy aircraft had hurt an American aircraft carrier for over half a century. And the one time a U.S. ship got hit, in 1986, it was by a French missile fired by an Iraqi aircraft in a case of mistaken identity. So, Congress reasoned, why spend a lot of money to fix a problem that wasnt there, or wasnt very pressing. Still, the navy managed to get Congress to pony up over two billion dollars to build all the hardware and software, test it and start installing it on ships and aircraft. 

But then came along the Internet, and cheap networking in general. CEC is now in danger of being swallowed by larger Department of Defense plans to link everyone together electronically. CEC is being criticized for being yesterdays technology. This is yet another example of how the usually slow pace of military system development is getting overtaken by rapidly advancing technology. There is certainly a need for CEC, and there has been since radar was first used in warfare during World War II. But now CEC is getting tied up in knots because new, and cheaper, technology is showing up to do the same thing. Well, at least some of the CEC software will probably be salvageable.

 


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