Video from Chinese state TV broadcast shows Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy J-15s being launched from the country’s Type 001 liaoning aircraft carrier and an interesting rotating optical device can be seen in the foreground mounted on the ship’s island. While the exact designation of the device is unclear, it appears to be a relatively obscure but increasingly important capability that gives the carrier some advantages when it comes to spotting and tracking. potential threats.

The general appearance of the system and its characteristic continuous rotation indicate that it is an infrared panoramic and track-type search system (IRST). IRST systems, in general, would be a beneficial addition to an aircraft carrier, such as liaoning, as they are passive in nature, meaning they are immune to electronic warfare systems aimed at disrupting radar and other radio frequency emissions. IRST systems focus on detecting and tracking objects via the infrared radiation they emit, thus creating another layer of defensive detection beyond radars and passive electronic surveillance measures around the ship to help liaoning to spot threats and provide better overall situational awareness.

What makes this type of unit different from the IRSTs found on airplanes is that it mechanically rotates 360 degrees in constant motion to create a panoramic or 360 degree “picture” of what is happening. passes around her at some point. The computer and software backends of these systems are increasingly capable and use machine learning and artificial intelligence to automatically detect, classify and alert operators to the appearance of objects of interest and feed their data into a wider combat management or an ecosystem of defensive systems aboard a ship.

This would allow close-in defensive systems, telescopic electro-optical and infrared sensors – which many warships have in abundance – and radars to immediately investigate any targets of interest detected by the system. As stated earlier, IRST systems are completely passive and do not emit radio frequency emissions themselves, which means that targets that have been detected and then tracked by them are not alerted to this fact, potentially giving a benefit to system users.

Of course, 360-degree IRSTs are optical devices, so they don’t provide ranging/distance data like radar would, or active sensors that rely on the emission of radio frequency energy. But it is possible that networking multiple devices mounted on different vessels, or even far apart on a very large vessel, could provide triangulated positioning range data on targets, although other systems may be better suited to this once a threat is detected by the IRST. and they are stuck on it.

Such a system is especially relevant for Chinese aircraft carriers. It would be very useful for spotting hard-to-detect objects like swarms of small drones and boats in the vicinity of the ship, but above all it has particular relevance to the anti-ship missile threats that these carriers might face in times of war.

While some anti-ship missiles rely on speed, others rely on stealth. The US AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and Naval Strike Missile, as well as the Block V Tactical Tomahawk to some extent, as well as other cruise missiles in service with the US and their allies, are stealthy. The LRASM is particularly so. They also rely on infrared seeker imagery for their terminal attacks on their targets, meaning that an active radar seeker does not reveal its presence to the ship it is attacking.

Combined with their sea-skimming flight profiles, they greatly diminish the effectiveness of traditional radar systems for detection and engagement. When flying low above the horizon on a ship, reaction time is minimal in the first place. As such, a 360 degree IRST like this becomes something of a critical defensive sensor. The limitation of Chinese radar technology could also further weigh on the use of these systems.

twitter user @HenriKenhmanndefense analyst at the independent French newspaper Pendulum Eastwas quick to share a Chinese product sheet for a system dubbed IR-17 when we learned about the system in the video after it started making its rounds on social media. The map reveals the basic functions of the IR-17, but it is still relatively difficult to find additional publicly available information about its capabilities. Although it does not match the device on the liaoning perfectly, the IR-17 looks similar and we might see a slightly different or production version of it on the rack. Either way, it’s a known, if still somewhat obscure, capability that China is clearly interested in, as are a number of other manufacturers around the world.

A China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) watermark can be seen printed on the background of the product card, which is not particularly noteworthy as CSIC is a giant conglomerate with several subsidiaries and subdivisions across China. The Chinese and English portions of the map are also depicted, divided into categories designated as “Missions”, “System Composition”, and “Main Technical and Tactical Specifications”.

As for the IR-17 missions, unfortunately a camera flash or some stray light obscured some of the information provided. What is readable reveals that the system can search at “low and super low” altitudes, provide the command and control system with target information, and provide close defense weapons with real-time target information. The last point is particularly noteworthy because even with the missing details, it indicates that scouting data acquired by the IR-17 could be transmitted directly to a ship’s combat systems in near real time, which is certainly in line with what we explained earlier.

The aircraft carrier liaoning (Hull 16) sails in the western Pacific. Credit: Photo by Zhang Lei/China Military Online

As for the performance specifications of the IR-17, the map indicates that its operational range under absolutely ideal conditions is no less than about five miles against skimming anti-ship missiles, 12 miles against other cruise missiles and 18 miles against fighters. Airplanes. He can apparently track and memorize at least 30 targets. This could hold the potential for him or a device like it to be useful in helping counter drone swarms, which are a major tactical problem for surface combatants and could be a deciding factor in a fight above. from Taiwan.

Besides the IR-17, a separate but similar example of this ability is the Spynel system of HGH, headquartered in France. Spynel provides 360 degree warning, target discrimination and tracking through high definition thermal imaging. HGH’s offering also provides enhanced overall situational awareness, and its automatic target identification and classification data feeds directly into the ship’s combat management system. Similar systems are also deployed on land.

Another French defense technology company, Safran, produces the VAMPIRE NG, among others, which has many of the same features as the IR-17 and Spynel which are ideal for detecting a similar range of threats. The company explicitly states that VAMPIR NG is designed to complement the ship’s radar by offering its own contribution to situational awareness, and notes that rigid inflatable boats and small drones are part of its tracking portfolio.

Safran’s VAMPIR NG IRST system installed on board a ship. Credit: Safran

Distributed Aperture Systems, very loosely similar to those found on the F-35 and soon to be on many other aircraft, which use fixed optical arrays located around a ship instead of unique rotation, become an even better performing alternative, at least in some respects, to panoramic IRSTs. The video feeds provided by the camera network are stitched together to provide a continuous and constant video stream in all directions around the vessel.

This can be leveraged in a number of ways, providing tactical and navigational warnings, sensor signals and situational awareness data. The visuals that these systems bring together can even be displayed in 360 degrees or in augmented reality-like interfaces, beyond a more traditional console. Northrop Grumman’s Silent Watch is one such system, but there are others, and the latest classes of warships are beginning to take advantage of this capability.

A fixed DAS-type system replaces the old island camera room enclosures on US supercarriers to record cockpit operations. This is in addition to the supercarrier’s many narrow field of view FLIR systems. You can read all about it in a past war zone feature, here. The Chinese system could also provide secondary recording from the cockpit, but it would not be as good as the surveillance networks of the US Navy’s system specially designed for this application.

The existence of this type of system on Chinese aircraft carriers should come as no surprise, but it underscores how seriously they take the threat of stealth anti-ship missiles and potentially swarm attacks from small boats and drones. And the United States and its allies don’t have a monopoly on stealth cruise missile design and especially not small drones and swarming boats, so panoramic infrared systems will only become a more familiar feature on ships of war only with time.

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