Fast Synthesizers Serve EW Systems

March 31, 2010
Applications in EW systems require demanding frequency synthesizer performance, including wide bandwidth frequency coverage, fast switching speed, and excellent spectral purity.

Frequency synthesizers for electronic- warfare (EW) systems must meet one of the more rigorous sets of specifications for any application. Such parameters as fast switching speed and low phase noise have always been important in EW systems, but with a trend toward increasing integration in military electronics systems, designers of frequency synthesizers are now being asked to deliver high performance levels in smaller packages, and with less power consumption.

Synthesizers for EW systems and simulation or training tools must be extremely broadband, such as 0.5 to 18.0 GHz, to match the range of possible threat emitters. Although the range can be covered with multiple digitally tuned oscillators (DTOs), it is more typically the province of a broadband frequency synthesizer locked to a stable reference source, such as an oven-controlled crystal oscillator (OCXO).

They must also provide clean signals, gauged in terms of a synthesizer's spectral purity or noise characteristics, which usually includes its harmonic levels, nonharmonic spurious levels, and singlesideband (SSB) phase noise. Phase noise is the amount of phase instability normalized to a 1-Hz bandwidth for a given offset distance from the carrier signal. This type of noise decreases further from the carrier, finally leveling off at the noise floor, generally about 10 MHz from the carrier. Because frequency synthesizer manufacturers may specify phase noise at various offset frequencies from the carrier, from as close to 10 Hz to as far as 10 MHz, it is important to compare synthesizer SSB phase noise for different models at the same offset frequencies.

Frequency switching speedthe delay time required by a synthesizer to switch from one frequency to anotheris a key synthesizer parameter for EW applications. It can be difficult to compare from one synthesizer manufacturer to another because of a lack of standardization in how it is tested. Switching speed may be defined as the time required to reach some phase value of a final frequency or to within some percentage, such as the final 10 percent, of a selected frequency. Not all synthesizer suppliers use the same frequency step size when evaluating switching speed. And switching speed can also apply to a change in amplitude.

To change frequencies, a synthesizer must react to a tuning command, such as a binary-coded-decimal (BCD) signal, and then go through several steps before reaching the new frequency, including the blanking time when the output power is attenuated between the frequencies to minimize spurious generation, the dwell time, and the settling time. In many EW systems, a frequency synthesizer must sometimes program delays as part of change in frequencies, when trying to match the characteristics of a detected emitter.

In many applications, frequency synthesizers may be required to provide phase-coherent or phase-continuous outputs. For phase-coherent switching, a synthesizer shifts from one frequency to another and back to the original frequency, at the same phase of the original frequency had it never switched away from it. Phasecoherent frequency-switching capability is important in coherent pulse Doppler radar systems that rely on coherent pulse detection for predetection integration. It is also important in EW systems that require an analog-like (continuous rather than in discrete steps) frequency sweep across a bandwidth with minimal noise generation.

Frequency synthesizers for EW applications can be constructed in a variety of ways, using different types of tunable oscillators, including voltagecontrolled oscillators (VCOs) and YIGtuned oscillators. In an indirect frequency synthesizer architecture, these microwave oscillators are locked to the phase of a lower-frequency reference oscillator, such as an OCXO, with superior stability and phase-noise characteristics. Such synthesizer designs can employ a single phaselocked loop(PLL for simplicity, although multiple loops are usually required when it is necessary to achieve good low-noise performance.

When frequency switching speed is critical, direct-analog and direct-digital synthesizers can provide the microsecond or even nanosecond switching speed required for EW systems. In a directanalog synthesizer, output frequencies are produced by multiplying and dividing a low-noise reference oscillator, creating a comb of different-frequency signals, then selecting desired signals by means of switching and filtering. The speeds of the switches (usually based on high-speed PIN diodes) essentially dictate the speeds that different frequencies can be selected, since all of the frequencies are present at all times. Unfortunately, this architecture is complex and expensive, requiring a large number of components. In the digital realm, a direct-digital synthesizer (DDS) uses phase and frequency accumulators to define different frequency and phase states for a desired signal, and a high-speed digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to produce output waveforms. Early DDS products were plagued by high spurious content due to the limited bit resolution of available DACs. But improvements in digital components have also led to improvements in the noise performance of high-switching-speed DDS products.

In addition to architectures, frequency synthesizers come in many packages, from large rack-mount units complete with power supplies and control logic for ground-based systems to compact modules and surface-mount packages designed for low-power operation in portable and airborne systems. Herley CT, which recently won a $1.1 million award for its DS frequency synthesizers, offers both rack-mount and modular versions of the venerable fast-switching direct-analog synthesizer for testing radar and EW systems. DS models are available for bandwidths as wide as 10 MHz to 20.48 GHz, with an optional doubler to bring outputs to 40.96 GHz. The DS synthesizers offer switching speeds of 250 ns for non-coherent out-puts, but can also be specified for phase-coherent switching, with rated speed to 500 ns or less. Switching is performed by means of parallel transistor-transistor-logic (TTL) BCD control signals. For phase-coherent switching, that time refers to arriving within 1 Hz of a new frequency for a change in frequency anywhere with-in the bandwidth of the synthesizer.

The DS frequency synthesizers exhibit typical phase noise of -90 dBc/Hz offset 100 Hz from a 10-GHz carrier and -120 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz from a 10 GHz carrier. Spurious levels are typically -65 dBc through 20.48 GHz and -60 dBc through 40.96 GHz, with harmonics of typically -15 dBc across the full frequency range of the unit. The DS synthesizers can be supplied in rack-mount versions with a variety of different heights, or as modules as small as 10.6 x 9.5 x 3 in.

The UFS synthesizers from Elcom Technologies are housed in 19-in. racks, but can also cover the bandwidths of several smaller synthesizers. The model UFS-40 for example, spans 0.1 to 40.0 GHz in one unit with 1-Hz frequency resolution with better than 250-ns switching speed. It delivers +10 dBm output power with phase noise of 100 dBc/Hz offset 100 Hz from a 10-GHz carrier, 112 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz, and 133 dBc/Hz offset 1 MHz from the same carrier. Spurious levels are typically 65 dBc while harmonics are 50 dBc.

Another long-time supplier of EW- grade synthesizers, Aeroflex, the former Comstron, generates clean output signals from 10 MHz to 18.4 GHz in the 2200 family of direct frequency synthesizers by multiplying a 5-or 10-MHz reference oscillator and filtering the multiplied signals to improve spectral purity. By doubling, dividing, and heterodyning signals from the reference oscillator, which is selected for its spectral purity and stability, a range of signals from 10 MHz to 2.3 GHz is created. By additional scaling, this is doubled first to a top frequency of 4.6 GHz, and inevitably to 18.4 GHz. The firm points out that the switching speed of this synthesizer is a function of the resolution of the new frequency, with less than 1 microsecond switching speed for 1 MHz resolution and 1.2 microseconds for 0.1-Hz resolution. And when arriving within 1 GHz of a new frequency is good enough, the switching speed is as good as 250 ns.

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Because of the frequency-doubling architecture, the phase noise of the synthesizer is a function of the multiplication factor. Essentially, the phase noise drops about 6 dB with every frequency doubling of the synthesized signals from the reference. The phase noise is -86 dBc/Hz offset 100 Hz from a 2.4-GHz carrier and -80 dBc/Hz offset 100 Hz from a 4.6-GHz carrier. The phase noise improves to -128 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from a 2.4-GHz carrier and -122 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from a 4.6-GHz carrier. Nonharmonic spurious levels are -50 dBc or better at all frequencies while harmonics are -25 dBc at all frequencies.

With increased integration in existing airborne and portable systems, and newer applications, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), requiring smaller, lighter signal sources, frequency synthesizer suppliers are seeing increasing demand for smaller packages and lower power consumption. For example, Wide Band Systems has developed low-power modular frequency synthesizers capable of 3-microsecond switching speed over bandwidths from 2 to 18 GHz. They measure just 6.5 x 6.25 x 1.050 in. Standard models tune in 1-MHz steps, although other tuning resolution is available in custom designs. The typical SSB phase noise levels are 103 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz from the carrier, 107 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from the carrier, and 121 dBc/ Hz offset 1 MHz from the carrier. These modular synthesizers provide +10 dBm output power across the tuning range with maximum spurious levels of 50 dBc and maximum harmonic levels of 20 dBc.

The SMS-B frequency synthesizer from Spinnaker Microwave, Inc. takes advantage of monolithic microwave integrated circuits (MMICs), including VCOs, multipliers, and amplifiers, to cover 2 to 20 GHz (and optionally to 40 GHz) in a unit measuring 3.0 x 3.0 x 0.7 in. Ideal for radar and EW systems, it features better than 500 microseconds switching speed with options to shave that to less than 50 microseconds. The phase noise is -80 dBc/Hz offset 1 kHz from a 10-GHz carrier and -110 dBc/Hz offset 1 MHz from the same carrier. Harmonics are -15 dBc while spurious levels are -60 dBc.

For a trade off in size, the company also offers the SMS-DA direct analog synthesizer in a package measuring 6.5 x 9.5 x 2.3 in. Ideal for SIGINT and EW systems, it tunes from 250 MHz to 4 GHz with better than 300-ns switching speed and 0.1-Hz step size. The phase noise is -95 dBc/Hz offset 1 kHz from the carrier and -100 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz from the carrier. It provides +10 dBm output power with -20 dBc harmonics and -60 dBc spurious content. Options bring the frequency range to 26 GHz.

Although lacking the bandwidth, but in an even smaller package, the THOR series of broadband frequency synthesizers from EM Research cover 30-percent segments of the 1-to-18-GHz range in a package measuring just 2.5 x 1.1 x 0.4 in. (see figure). With settling time of less than 250 microseconds, these modular synthesizers limit phase noise to -90 dBc/ Hz offset 10 kHz from an 8-GHz carrier and -105 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from the same carrier. Harmonics are better than -15 dBc while spurious content is -50 dBc or better at 8 GHz.

With advances in digital technology, designers of DDS sources have dramatically improved the performance of their products for EW applications. For example, ITT Microwave Systems offers rack-mount and modular synthesizers including their WaveCor Dual Synthesizers, with two DDS sources in the same package, one tuning from 300 MHz to 18 GHz, the other from 300 MHz to 2.5 GHz. The technology offers the rare combination of high (1 Hz) frequency resolution with 300-ns switching speed. For the higherfrequency unit, the phase noise is better than 125 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz from a 9-GHz carrier. For the lower-frequency synthesizer, the phase noise is 140 dBc/ Hz offset 10 kHz from a 1.2-GHz carrier. Spurious levels are better than 65 dBc. As building-block sources for EW systems, Meret Optical also offers DDS sources with clock rates to 1 GHz (outputs to 400 MHz) and exceptional 40 ns switching speed.

When tuning speed is less critical than spectral purity, Micro Lambda Wireless leverages low-noise tunable YIG oscillator technology in its MLSE series of wideband synthesizers, with models covering 2 to 20 GHz and 1 to 22 GHz. Provided in housings measuring just 7 x 5 x 2 in., these high-output (+14 to +20 dBm) synthesizers can tune their full bandwidths and reach a new frequency in about 31 ms. The spurious content is typically 60 dBc.

Although known for its test-equipmenttype frequency synthesizers, such as the 2500B series of microwave signal generators for applications from 100 kHz to 50 GHz, Giga-tronics also supplies modular frequency synthesizers for integration into EW systems. Added to the company's product lineup through the acquisition of MicroSource, the synthesizers are based on low-noise YIG oscillator technology and offer tuning speeds in the millisecond range from 2 to 24 GHz. Wideband models in the SNY-510 series, for example, provide greater than one octave tuning from 2 to 10 GHz in a modular housing measuring 2.56 x 3.81 x 0.94 in. that is designed to fit into a PXI or VXI chassis. Model SNY-0205-510-01 covers 2.1 to 5.0 GHz in 125-kHz steps with 100-ms typical switching speed. The phase noise is typically -80 dBc/Hz offset 1 kHz from the carrier and -125 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from the carrier.

The firm's SNP 520 series of lownoise synthesizers are offered in bands of 4 GHz or less from 6 to 24 GHz with somewhat lower phase noise. Model SNP-0608-520-01 spans 6 to 8 GHz in 1-Hz steps with +17 dBm output power and 25 ms nominal switching speed. The phase noise is -104 dBc/Hz offset 1 kHz from the carrier and -123 dBc/Hz offset 100 kHz from the carrier. The phase noise drops to -145 dBc/Hz at offsets of 1 MHz and greater from the carrier. Harmonics are held to -25 dBc while spurious levels are -70 dBc or better. The compact module measures 5.00 x 5.50 x 1.60 in. The SNP product line also includes standard models covering 8 to 10 GHz, 10 to 12 GHz, 12 to 16 GHz, 16 to 20 GHz, and 20 to 24 GHz. All models are designed to operate from a single +15-VDC supply.

Phase Matrix offers instrument-type and card-format synthesizers, including its 114XA family of VXI synthesizers. They provide 1-MHz resolution over bandwidths as wide as 10 MHz to 20 GHz and fit into three VXI slots. They feature output levels from +10 to +13 dBm with 30 dBc harmonics, 60 dBc spurious levels, and phase noise of 85 dBc/Hz offset 10 kHz from a 10-GHz carrier.

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