When Canada’s federal government decided to build and operate eight experimental surface wave radar systems as a security measure in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks, Ottawa set aside $43 million in public funds for the project and picked Raytheon’s HFSWR (High-Frequency Surface Wave Radar) system, a pioneering land-based radar that had been successfully demonstrated in December 1999. Seven years later, the whole operation has been scrapped, and the Government of Sri Lanka seems to be the beneficiary. And Raytheon Canada, of course; a US-owned subsidiary which spent $39 million to develop the system, working alongside Canadian federal defence scientists.
Raytheon’s HF-SWR-503 system transmits waves that follow the curve of the earth’s surface, and can detect maritime vessels and low-flying aircraft that are hundreds of kilometers over the horizon, as far away as 370km from Canada’s coast. Most regular surface radars are line-of-sight systems, with very limited range. Anything over the horizon is undetectable. The Raytheon system uses the ocean’s surface as a conductor to increase its range. According to Raytheon, the HF-SWR-503 system is ideal for defensive operations and monitoring of a nation’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and is sophisticated enough to detect even small boats such as those used by drug smugglers and terrorists — in fact, it seems almost tailor-made for use against the the LTTE’s sea-going wing — Sea Tigers — as well as the single-engine Ziln aircraft the terrorists used last year for nuisance raids. Raytheon also claims the system can be operated 24/7 with one of the lowest operating costs per unit in comparison to all other radars. Each HF-SWR-503 unit consist of an array of monopoles, 660m long, with the monopoles spaced at 50m, corresponding to half the wavelength of the radar’s 6 to 3 MHz operating band. The system has a field of view of 120-degrees, and can obtain target positions that are accurate upto hundreds of metres. When operated at a frequency of 15 to 20 MHz, the HF-SWR-503 can also track low-flying cruise missiles. The system is highly transportable and can be assembled and operational in under two days. This makes the sale seem like the deal of the century for the SL Navy, which has been struggling to interdict the LTTE’s supply lines which stretch across the Indian Ocean that surrounds the island of Sri Lanka. The latter has recently resorted to mining large areas of its coastal waters, particularly around Mannar Island and Adam’s Bridge which guard the western end of the Palk Strait. The Raytheon HF-SWR-503 system will enable the GoSL to cut down on maritime patrols by its Navy and Air Force.
Going on reports, the HF-SWR-503 system has had a fairly trouble-free life over the last nine years, operating from bases in Newfoundland, which makes one wonder why it has remained experimental for such a lengthy period of time. However a recent complaint has brought up the possibility that the radar frequencies might interfere with civilian communications systems, and since the Ottawa government is responsible for such civilian systems, it has decided to shut down the experiment immediately. This doesn’t, however, prevent Raytheon from seeking foreign customers for this ground-breaking system — particularly in the Third World, where local governments will be less inclined to worry about civilian discomfort. Raytheon Canada vice-president Denny Roberts confirmed that they have several potential foreign buyers, and that it has already sold the radar to Sri Lanka, thanks to the Canadian Commercial Corporation, a government agency that helps Canadian companies market their products internationally.
Normally, the recent US State Department sanction on military sales to Sri Lanka might have thrown a spanner in US-owned Raytheon’s radar dish, but on January 15th the State Department informed Raytheon that it did not consider the system a military one as it is designed to track and police ships and boats within a nation’s own territorial waters. The US seems willing to ignore the very obvious fact that the system will be used by the Sri Lankan military, and reflects the relatively calm manner in which the Sri Lankan defence establishment received the initial news of the US State Department embargo. The FBI report on the LTTE released earlier this year, probably confirms the Colombo view that Washington will take away with one hand while giving with the other.
So far there has been no information on how much Sri Lanka paid Raytheon for the HF-SWR-503, but once it goes into operation it will be the only system of its kind in use anywhere in the world. Other maritime nations will now be watching Sri Lanka’s war very carefully as they evaluate the system for their own use. Currently, the United Nations recognises 106 coastal nations that have economic jurisdiction out to the 200-nautical mile limit, and some of them operate OTHB (Over-the-Horizon Backscatter) coastal radar systems which bounce waves off the ionosphere in order to look over the horizon, but none of these radar systems are anywhere near as reliable as the HFSWR. With Raytheon’s monopoly on the surface radar market, that’s a lot of customers.