If you've ever worried about the threat from supersonic tennis balls, then BAE Systems’ Artisan medium-range Type 997 3D surveillance radar should put you at ease – it can detect one traveling at Mach 3 (1,980 mph, 3,186 km/h) at a distance of 25 kilometers (15.5 mi). The new radar, developed for the Royal Navy’s Type 23 Duke-class frigates, is designed to simultaneously detect 900 targets smaller than a bird, against background noise equivalent to 10,000 mobile phone signals at ranges from 200 meters (656 ft) to 200 kilometers (124 mi).

According to BAE Systems, the Artisan is the most sophisticated radar system ever developed. The first unit has been installed aboard HMS Iron Duke (F234) as part of her five-yearly refit before re-entering service next year. The company said that the advantage of Artisan is not only its capabilities, but also its light weight of only 700 kilograms (1,543 lb). A single team can install it in only three weeks.

Radar has become so much a part of military and civilian life that we take it entirely for granted, but there was a time within living memory when fogs were as dangerous for ships and planes as flying blind. The only way to detect enemy aircraft at a distance was to listen for them, and great battle fleets could pass one another unawares in the night.

HMS Iron Duke firing a missile

It was a time when darkness could completely change the tide of battle. For example, had radar been available at the Battle of Jutland during the First World War when the Royal Navy engaged the Imperial German Fleet, the German ships wouldn't have been able to slip past the British in the dark and the war might have ended much sooner.

Radar changed all that, though it was a long time in coming. Experiments in detecting objects with radio waves date back to 1904 when the likes of Christian Hulsmeyer and Nikola Tesla were fiddling about, but radar was still the stuff of science fiction when Hugo Gernsback made a remarkably accurate prediction of it in his 1911 novel Ralph 124C41+.

During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Americans, Germans, French, Soviets and especially the British worked on radar and treated the technology as a military secret. However, for much of that time, even the best systems couldn't do more than provide a very rough bearing for a very large object over a very short distance without any measurement of the target’s range or elevation.

By the eve of the Second World War, all of the major powers had some sort of radar systems in operation, though it was still a time when a radar that could give bearing, distance and elevation was a major advance. Sir Robert Watson Watt, scientific adviser on telecommunication to the British War Cabinet, was drawn into radar when he was asked to evaluate a “death ray.” His contribution, plus British developments in television technology, gave Britain a considerable lead that was shared with the United States and the Commonwealth nations after war broke out.

The Battle of Britain showed the strategic importance of radar. It still only had a range of tens of miles, but it could provide enough resolution to detect an incoming bomber or fighter plane. More importantly, it was used to guide British fighters against incoming Luftwaffe planes by ground control while the Germans had to hunt for their British counterparts, making it a classic “force multiplier.”

The real breakthrough came when a recognizable modern radar was created with the invention of that denizen of the domestic microwave, the magnetron. Invented by the British and perfected and manufactured by the Americans, the magnetron allowed for much more accurate radar systems by generating microwaves. Where the wavelengths of radar beams were once measured in meters, they could now be measured in centimeters.

What this level of resolution meant was that radar could detect very small targets because of the shorter wavelengths. By the time the centimetric radar went into production, it wasn't locating ships and planes in a clear blue sky, it was picking out U-boat snorkels and attack periscopes with the width of a walking stick in choppy seas. This made the Kriegsmarine very unhappy. Nevertheless, the range was never much, usually much only a bit more than 50 miles.

The Cold War saw military operations against everything from ICBMs to jungle guerrilla fighters, which put imperatives on developing new radars of longer ranges, greater sensitivity and smaller size. Soon, there were radars that could pick out a missile warhead coming over the pole or a soldier creeping through the grass. It was a time when the arctic wastes of Canada saw DEW line stations built and when shortwave listeners puzzled over the mysterious chirp of a secret Soviet ABM radar in Siberia.

The BAE Systems Artisan radar is the latest product of this development. For it, detecting a supersonic tennis ball isn’t a party trick, it’s the cross section of an incoming ship-killer missile that needs to be detected in the face of a battlefield complete with enemy jamming.

Artisan 3D Medium Range Radar Type 997 testing

One question that often gets asked is which radar is the most powerful. That’s a difficult one, because it depends on what the radar system is used for. A police radar gun for catching speeders is very different than a deep-space tracking radar and is designed accordingly.

Advances in technology can often fundamentally alter how a radar system works. For example, a recent study shows that Britain’s advanced and highly complex civilian air radar network could be replaced by a system that analyzes the echoes of television transmissions as they bounce off aircraft.

Also, radar has to act as a system. It isn’t just the radar unit, but the electronics to deal with interference, the computers that help to differentiate and track signals, and how all of these work with other radar systems as a team. Not to mention that we’re talking about systems that are often classified, so there is an element of vagueness involved where the public is concerned.

Artisan 3D Medium Range Radar Type 997 on a mockup of a Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier

All that being said, the current consensus is that the Royal Navy’s Daring class frigates have the most advanced radar systems. These use a combination of an S1850M and a SAMPSON radar. These multi-function radars are fully automatic and between them can track 1,000 targets at a range of 400 kilometers (250 mi) as well as stealth craft and objects at the outer atmosphere while providing control for the ship's Sea Viper defense system and its Aster missiles.

The Artisan radar is currently being fitted to Type 23 frigates as part of a £100 million (US$150 million) program, but the system will also be used in amphibious ships and the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers currently under construction. It may also be used in the new Type 26 frigates that will come into service in 2020.

The video below shows the Artisan radar in use.

Source: BAE Systems