The Army’s decision to buy a new generation of radars developed at Lockheed Martin’s plant in suburban Syracuse will help address weaknesses in U.S.-made air defenses exposed earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, military analysts say.
Low-flying cruise missiles and swarms of drones were able to evade U.S.-supplied air defenses on Sept. 14 and attack Saudi oil production facilities, causing billions of dollars in damage and setting off a rise in world oil prices.
In response, Pentagon officials said Thursday they would send four U.S. Sentinel radar systems, a Patriot missile battery and about 200 support personnel to Saudi Arabia to defend against possible future attacks.
But existing U.S. air defenses were not built to easily detect and stop low-flying threats such as the missiles and drones used in the attack this month.
It’s a major reason why the Army chose Lockheed Martin this week to build a new generation of Sentinel radars that promise to be more effective at detecting low-flying threats, and able to spot such threats from a greater range.
The Army contract, worth up to $3 billion over 20 years, is the largest in the history of the plant at Electronics Park in Salina.
“What you’re seeing is a recognition that there is a specter of air and missile threats, whether it’s drones and cruise missiles,” said Tom Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
“A lot more of this stuff is out there and available with operational sophistication that is going to put us and our allies at risk,” Karako said.
The Army recognized the need for improved radars several years ago when it asked defense contractors to come up with prototypes for a new Sentinel radar with better capabilities to detect emerging threats.
Lockheed officials said the “needed capability will help protect our warfighters for the next 40 years.”
The Army said the initial $281 million contract awarded Wednesday will allow Lockheed Martin to develop and produce the first 18 of the new Sentinel A4 radar systems. The radars will be built at Lockheed’s plant at Electronics Park in Salina, which employs about 1,700 people.
Lockheed says the new generation of radar will have a greater range because it uses gallium nitride, a material that can carry higher voltage than previous semiconductors used in radar components.
The Sentinel radars also provide 360-degree coverage, an ability to “see” in all directions. The problem in Saudi Arabia was that most of its U.S.-supplied radars were pointed in one direction, and most of those faced south where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have staged attacks from Yemen.
Military analysts say the successful attack earlier this month likely came from the north, toward the Kuwait-Iraq border, where air defenses were not as strong.
Karako said the attack underscored the need for new and better radars and air defense systems.
“The demand for that is going to have to go up because that’s where the threat is,” Karako said. “There have been plenty of indicators that it was coming, and now it’s here.”
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