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South Korea’s pending AESA decision for F-16s to be closely watched

South Korea will launch a competition in November to select the first active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for retrofit on Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The first showdown between the Northrop Grumman scaleable agile beam radar (SABR) and the Raytheon advanced combat radar (RACR) will be closely watched by air forces from Taiwan to Singapore to the USA, with the US Air Force in the rare position of following another country's purchase of an American-designed upgrade for US-built combat aircraft.

The unusual dynamic means South Korea's decision on a new AESA supplier for the retrofit of 134 KF-16s will be heavily scrutinised.

Korean F-16, Republic of Korea air force

 © Republic of Korea air force

South Korea's Defense Acquisition Programmes Administration (DAPA) has crafted a careful competitive process. The two AESA bidders will submit proposals in mid-February, industry officials said.

Meanwhile, DAPA has also invited bids for integrating the radars and other upgrades from Lockheed and BAE Systems. The agency will select the integrator and the radar supplier separately.

The South Korean order will then be processed by the US government as a foreign military sales case.

Following closely behind South Korea's programme is a similar upgrade for Taiwan's F-16A/B fleet. In addition, the USAF has also asked Raytheon and Northrop for information about an AESA radar retrofit on F-16s. However, the service does not need the new capability until at least 2017.

That means South Korea will be in the difficult position of selecting a radar that may not be supported by the USAF, if the service eventually selects a different system.

In South Korea, the AESA suppliers will also face pressure to meet a 50% offset requirement with a highly sensitive US military system, which could limit the amount and quality of work that could be transferred to manufacturers in the country.

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