A US Department of Defense ruling on export policy for active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars has set the stage for a new wave of foreign sales, especially for the Lockheed Martin F-16 retrofit market.
Northrop Grumman has confirmed that the DoD approved the classified details of the ruling late last year, setting a firm baseline for the release of hardware and technical data about the increasingly popular radar system for tactical and surveillance aircraft.
"It enables us now to be measured against it," says Arlene Camp, Northrop's director of advanced F-16 radar programmes. The company is continuing to develop a new AESA sensor - the Scaleable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) - for the international F-16 retrofit market. A two-year validation phase culminated at the end of last year with the completion of flight tests aboard a Sabreliner testbed modified with an F-16 radome and radar cockpit controls.
Northrop and the US Air Force are in the process of selecting an advanced F-16 model to use as a flight-test asset for an early production unit of SABR. Flight tests are expected to start before the end of the year.
The goal is to select a late-model F-16 - such as a Block 50/52 - to stretch the limitations of the integration challenge for the new radar, Camp says. Newer F-16s carry more power-consuming avionics boxes, making power and cooling performance a premium compared with older versions of the aircraft.
Even so, Lockheed plans to survey the F-16's actual power and cooling needs. "There may be some wiggle room even though we're not sure we need it yet," Camp says. "There may be some additional room that the aircraft has left to give."
Northrop is designing SABR to require few, if any, structural or system modifications to the F-16. However, the company acknowledges that upgrading the F-16's cockpit displays would be needed to properly show the improved radar's tracking results. "That's the plan of a couple of display providers that we would like to see happen," Camp says. "I think that would enhance the user's experience of the radar."
Northrop's SABR faces a rare competitive challenge for F-16 sales. The Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar is also being offered, with Lockheed expected to eventually make a selection which Camp says will likely be final.
"I don't foresee there would be multiple competitions," she adds. "It would make it extremely hard to come back and win a second contract. The price would be much lower due to the development under contract so it would be very hard to unseat an incumbent."