Boeing [BA], prime contractor for U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F, awarded Lockheed Martin [LMT] two contracts worth up to $100 million to upgrade the aircraft’s IRST21 sensor system, Lockheed said Thursday.

The IRST21 system is the next generation of Lockheed’s legacy Infrared Search and Track System (IRST). It is a passive, long-range sensor that searches for and detects infrared emissions.

The IRST21 sensor system is mounted on the nose of the F/A-18E/F’s centerline fuel tank. (Image: Lockheed Martin)
The IRST21 sensor system is mounted on the nose of the F/A-18E/F’s centerline fuel tank. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

IRST21 can simultaneously track multiple airborne targets to provide an effective air-to-air targeting capability, even when dealing with radar-jamming threats or radar-denied environments.

Lockheed highlighted the system enhances the resolution of multiple targets compared to radar, allowing pilots to identify threat formations at longer ranges.

Lockheed produces IRST21 for F/A-18E/F prime Boeing under the IRST Block II program.

This contract covers developing advanced software, performing hardware upgrades, and delivering prototypes of upgrades to the system. The company noted this will further enhance IRST21’s detection, tracking, and ranging capabilities in radar-denied environments.

The IRST21 is currently mounted on the nose of the F/A-18E/F centerline fuel tank, although the Block II IRST is planned to eventually be integrated into the aircraft structure.

In May, Naval Air Systems Command awarded Boeing an $89 million contract to fully incorporate the Block II IRST into the F/A-18. That award covered initial design and development, procurement of prototyping hardware, integrated product support, and technical reviews (Defense Daily, May 26).

Earlier, in April, Lockheed won a second low-rate production contract to provide 12 IRST21 systems. This was double the number over the first contract from 2015.

“The U.S. Navy’s strategic block upgrade program enables us to continue advancing our technology and rapidly deliver it to the warfighter,” Paul Lemmo, vice president of fire control/special operations forces contractor logistics support services at Lockheed, said in a statement.

“We are excited to implement the Block II upgrades and enhance IRST21’s performance,” he added.

IRST is also one of the major elements of the F/A-18E/F Block III, which features updates over the existing Block II variant like conformal fuel tanks, newer datalinks, and a new cockpit display.