Distributed Aperture System Tracks Ballistic Missiles from 1,300 km Away


Manned and unmanned aircraft equipped with omni-directional ‘Distributed Aperture System’ (DAS) imaging infrared systems could be used effectively to provide early warning on missile launches. Such systems covering a full hemisphere, can spot missiles as they break over the horizon and automatically track their hot flame from long distance, throughout their ascent phase. With such capability the system could offer early warning advantages beyond current ‘non traditional ISR’, in missile defense and counter rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) defense. The only aircraft currently equipped with Northrop Grumman AN/AAQ-37 DAS is the F-35 Lightning II. However, other platforms could get such capabilities if their missile defense capabilities are proven, to provide early warning triggering other sensors to track ballistic missile after their launch.

The capability of these staring sensors to detect and track ballistic missiles distances beyond a thousand kilometers was demonstrated during a test flight of the BAC-111 test-bed aircraft. During a test flight conducted earlier in 2010, the sensors detected a two-stage target missile from a distance of 1,300 kilometers (800 miles). “DAS is an omni-directional infrared system that can simultaneously detect and track aircraft and missiles in every direction, with no practical limit on the number of targets it can track. DAS truly revolutionizes the way we think about situational awareness,” said Dave Bouchard, program director for F-35 sensors at Northrop Grumman’s Electronic Systems sector. “In recent testing, DAS has proven to have applications and capabilities beyond its initial requirements for the F-35, including ballistic missile detection and tracking, and counter-rocket, artillery and mortar (C-RAM) capabilities.”

The video generated by DAS during the flight test has been magnified 10 times to allow clearer viewing of the rocket. Unlike other sensors, DAS detects and tracks the rocket at horizon-break without the aid of external cues. DAS algorithms continuously track the rocket through first-stage burnout, second-stage ignition, across DAS sensor boundaries, and through the rocket’s second-stage burnout at a distance of more than 800 miles. The video also shows DAS’ detecting and tracking the rocket’s first-stage re-entry.