Infrared search and track for combat aircraft

U.S. Navy air combat experts are asking electro-optics engineers at the Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to build infrared search and track (IRST) sensors for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet jet fighter-bomber to enable the aircraft to detect, track, and attack enemy aircraft in a stealthy way without making its presence known.
Officials of the Naval Air Systems Command at Patuxent River Naval Air Station, Md., announced a $55 million contract Friday to the Boeing Co. Defense, Space & Security segment in St. Louis to build as many as six design and build the IRST Block II low-rate initial production III systems.
The Super Hornet combat aircraft IRST is a long-wave infrared detection system that targets enemy aircraft in conditions where the Super Hornet cannot use its radar. The system, which Boeing is buying from the Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control segment in Orlando, Fla., uses infrared search and track technology to detect and provide weapons-quality track solutions on potentially hostile aircraft.
The IRST Block I, also called the IRST21 Sensor System, fits on the front of the Super Hornet's centerline fuel tank. Two years ago Navy leaders approved a restructured program that foregoes full-rate production of Block I sensors and proceeds directly to the Block II system.
The IRST passive search system consists of a passive longwave infrared receiver, a processor, inertial measurement unit, and environmental control unit. The infrared receiver, processor, and inertial measurement unit fit inside the sensor, which attaches to the front of the fuel tank mounted to the aircraft on the BRU-32 bomb rack.
The Navy developed the IRST Block I using components from the F-15K/SG aircraft's infrared receiver, which is based on the IRST design of the now-retired Navy F-14 Tomcat jet fighter. IRST Block II includes improvements to the infrared receiver and updated processors. The Navy intends to produce 170 IRST systems.
Even amid electronic attack or heavy RF and infrared countermeasures, IRST provides autonomous, tracking data that increases pilot reaction time, and enhances survivability by enabling first-look, first-shoot capability, Lockheed Martin officials say.
Infrared sensors like the IRST detect the heat from an aircraft's engine exhaust or even the heat generated by the friction of an aircraft as it passes through the atmosphere. Unlike radar, infrared sensors do not emit electronic signals, and do not give away their presence to adversaries.
This ability can enable Super Hornet pilots to identify enemy aircraft at long ranges, and enable them to fire their air-to-air missiles at their maximum ranges.
Data from the IRST system can stand alone or fuse with the Super Hornet's other on-board sensor data situational awareness. Lockheed Martin also is developing an IRST pod that can be fitted to the F-15C and F-16 jet fighters.