Before the U.S. Army deployed its 20-year-old AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder Weapon Locating System to Iraq, the service developed new software to bring the system up to date. But at least one operational unit said the upgraded system failed to do what it was intended to do: detect mortar rounds.
For members of the 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, the TPQ-37 was more of a problem than an asset. The unit came under mortar fire 40 times in Iraq, but the system only detected rounds three times. The squadron suffered between 10 and 15 injuries from mortars.
"We stopped, we moved the radar around, the technical guys around worked the [software] programming," said Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly, squadron leader. "We tried everything humanly possible."
The unit even fired its own mortars at the system in an attempt to work out the bugs. Even under the best circumstances, the radar detected only one out of five rounds.
"I just don’t think there was fidelity in the system," Reilly said. "I don’t think that it worked."
Thales Raytheon System’s Q-37 Firefinder radar, which can be transported on a 2.5-ton truck, was first fielded in the 1980s to detect rounds from long-range Soviet artillery up to 50 kilometers away. Medium-range mortars and artillery were typically handled by Thales Raytheon’s AN/TPQ-36 radar.
Army program officials, who say they track the performance of the upgraded Q-37 daily, rate its effectiveness at roughly 90 percent — when it is used correctly by troops who have been trained extensively.
The radars are "performing exceptionally well for a system originally designed and developed 20 years ago for a different type of warfare," Lt. Col. Al Visconti, Firefinder product manager, wrote in a response to questions.
But several factors have complicated their use in theater. For one, soldiers were trained only briefly on the new software before going to Iraq.
"We did training with soldiers on the ground [on the new software], but they didn’t get the full course of instruction, the months and years of peacetime training," Col. Michael Bowman, Army program manager for night vision, reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, said.
The enemy also has adapted their tactics to defeat the radars, using "nontraditional trajectories and nonstandard launchers," Bowman said. Further details on the enemy’s tactics are operationally sensitive, he said.
"If we have any training issues at all and a smart and innovative enemy, the performance of the radar has been less than" 90 percent effective, Bowman said.
Moreover, the Q-37 was built to protect division-size units. Five apiece would cover an entire front line. But in Iraq, the friendly units are smaller and the enemies more mobile. The Firefinders have been parceled out to brigades, typically one each. Offering only 90-degree coverage, the Q-37 leaves part of the battlefield uncovered, Bowman said.
The Army has sent teams of Firefinder experts to the field to work on tactics and training, the colonel said. Meanwhile, officials at Thales Raytheon are working independent of the Army to upgrade the Q-37’s performance, reliability and maintainability, said John Ryan, the company’s deputy for battlefield radar.
The Army’s teams also are working on software problems with the TPQ-36, which has been picking up too much "clutter," or interference. The Army has released to industry a request for information to improve the TPQ-36’s radar processor, but has not selected a contractor.
Thales Raytheon has responded to the request with a solution officials believe they could field in less than a year, Ryan said. The Army hasn’t made a decision.
The use of the Q-36 and Q-37 systems in Iraq has prompted the Army to re-evaluate its future mortar detection systems. The TPQ-47, originally expected in the field several years ago, is still in development and could get canceled in favor of a short-range system that offers 360-degree coverage.
The Q-47 model, developed by Thales Raytheon, can detect artillery as far away as 400 kilometers, but offers only 90-degree coverage. It has run over cost and schedule and is having technical difficulties meeting tough size and operational requirements, Bowman said.
"I can’t tell you today that we’re about to terminate it, stop work," Bowman said. "We’re re-evaluating it."
Thales Raytheon is "disappointed" that the fate of the Q-47 is unclear because recent tests have been "very encouraging," said Clark Van Derwood, Thales Raytheon TPQ-47 program manager.
"The results indicate that we have turned the corner technically and would meet the key performance parameters," Van Derwood said in a statement. "Although costs and schedule are challenging issues, we believe we have a plan to address them."
Aside from the Firefinder systems, the service recently has fielded limited numbers of the Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar and expects to upgrade the program’s range and accuracy during the next several years. Currently, the system can detect mortars in 360 degrees out to a range of 6 kilometers.
The service also plans to push the Multi-Mission Radar into demonstration in 2006. Currently a science and technology program, the radar will perform 360-degree air traffic control, air defense and air defense fire control, as well as 90-degree mortar detection at ranges of 50 kilometers.
Firefinder was one of the first bilateral defense related exchange between the US and India, after India conducted its nuclear tests. Firefinder was deemed a necessity by the Indian Army after the Kargil episode.