USAF details F-16 life extension programme

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The US Air Force is hoping to upgrade some 300 Lockheed Martin F-16C/Ds as a stopgap measure until the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes online.

The aircraft, which are drawn from the USAF's fleet of Block 40, 42, 50 and 52 machines, will undergo a structural service life extension programme (SLEP) and a combat avionics programmed extension suite (CAPES) upgrade. The modifications will greatly boost the venerable warplane's capabilities.

"It provides a very significant capability to the F-16 platform that puts it on par, I do believe, with some of the other platforms that have AESA [active electronically scanned array radars] today," says Col Mark Mol, programme manager at the USAF's F-16 System Programme Office at Hill AFB, Utah.

 

US Air Force

The CAPES programme involves both hardware and software modifications, Mol says. The F-16 will receive a new AESA radar, a new Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare system, an integrated broadcast system (IBS) and a center display unit (CDU). There will also be a new operational flight programme to tie those new systems together with the aircraft's existing avionics. The software will be one of the biggest challenges, Mol says.

The USAF will buy 300 new AESA radars as part of the upgrade, but the service has not yet determined if it will buy the Northrop Grumman Scalable Agile Beam Radar or Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar. The USAF will be holding a competition in the near future to select which vendor it will pick, Mol says.

The addition of an automated ALQ-213 electronic warfare suite should greatly reduce the pilots' work load. The system does not necessarily boost the jet's hardware capability, but it offers a vastly superior man-machine interface. "It is a performance enhancement in the sense that it provides that computer automation and control of the system," Mol says. "It's more responsive to threats."

 

US Air Force

The IBS introduces a level of information fusion to the F-16 cockpit. The system gathers and correlates data from off-board data-links such as Link-16 with information from the jet's own sensors such as the radar and then presents that picture in a single coherent display. It will increase the detail in which threats can be examined and it will also display the disposition of friendly forces. "It takes a number of sensors and provides integrated situational awareness," Mol says. "That information will also be displayed on the CDU."

The addition of the CDU will enable pilots to better exploit the aircraft's new sensor suite. The new high resolution screen can display synthetic aperture radar maps, IBS tracks, target pod video and other stored data, Mol says. It will also be qualified as a primary flight reference, which will enable the USAF to eliminate some of the F-16's older mechanical gauges. The CDU is already flying on older F-16s currently in service with the Air National Guard, Mol adds.

The F-16 was designed with a structural life of 8,000h. The SLEP should increase that to between 10,000h and 12,000h. The USAF and Lockheed are undergoing a "full-scale durability test" with an instrumented F-16 airframe to determine exactly how much life can be squeezed out of the jet. The SLEP modifications will be designed based on the results of those tests, Mol says. But not all of the aircraft will need structural modifications. "We may not need to SLEP all the aircraft, just do the remaining life on them," Mol says.

 

US Air Force

The USAF has chosen Lockheed has the prime contractor for the F-16 upgrade. While the company is currently working under a study contract, the service plans to award Lockheed a sole-source prime integration contract in the near future, Mol says. "The acquisition strategy for the sole source contract has already been determined."

The first kits are scheduled to be procured in fiscal year 2017 with installations starting in FY2018. But before the USAF begins retrofitting its F-16s, the new upgrades will have to undergo developmental and operational testing. The kit will enter ground testing in a software integration lab from around 2014 to 2015. If that proves to be successful, the upgrades will enter developmental flight testing in 2016 and enter production a year later.

The F-16 life extension programme is designed to be a gap-filler until the USAF can procure enough F-35 stealth fighters. "We estimate that to be a 15 year extension to the viability of the F-16 platform," Mol says.