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US Air Force changes acquisitions strategy for F-16 radar modernization

The US Air Force is changing its acquisitions strategy for the F-16 Radar Modernization Program, which it is running as part of its F-16 Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) effort to modernize the venerable single-engine fighter.

"The USAF is contracting with Lockheed Martin to develop an AESA [active electronically scanned array] fire control radar as a CFE (Contractor Furnished Equipment) item for the F-16 platform," says Dawn Sutton, deputy director of the USAF's F-16 System Program Office (SPO). "We defer to Lockheed Martin as to their plans on how to most appropriately meet the subject requirement. However, it's our expectation that Lockheed Martin will conduct a source selection to choose a radar vendor to meet the Air Force requirements."

 

 USAF

Under the previous USAF strategy, the US government would supply the CAPES prime integrator, original F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin, with an AESA radar as government furnished equipment. "The requirements are coming out of the air force," says Bill McHenry, Lockheed's F-16 business development director. "So the air force hands us the operational requirements and we collect all the data." Lockheed would then pick the radar most suitable for the CAPES project, McHenry says.

There are two competing AESA radars that are on the market. One is Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), which is based on technology developed from the APG-77, APG-80 and APG-81 found respectively on the Lockheed F-22 Raptor, F-16E/F Block 60, and F-35. The other is the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), which is based on the APG-63 (V) 3, APG-79 and APG-82 found on the Boeing F-15C, F/A-18E/F, and F-15E respectively.

Lockheed has already had a preliminary look at early versions of both radars in its systems integration labs and both systems have flown on the F-16, McHenry says. At first glance, both radars meet the USAF's requirements. McHenry cannot specifically say when there will be a competition because the decision to change the acquisitions strategy is so new.

"We've just now gotten the go ahead that we're the CFE guys, up until this came out the decision was the radar was going to be government furnished equipment," he says. "So this pre-solicitation notice is a milestone that changes direction."

The USAF requires 24 upgraded F-16s be declared operational no later than the fourth quarter of calendar year 2018, which means a competition will have to happen soon. It will take two to three years to fully develop either AESA to production standards "We need to go out, get the selection, and move out very quickly in order to meet the timeline requirements identified by the US Air Force and Taiwan," McHenry says.

The USAF hopes to modernize 300 F-16s with new radars, center cockpit displays, enhanced electronic warfare systems, data-links and cockpit avionics integration. The radar is the centerpiece of the CAPES upgrade, but USAF has indicated that it also wants to more tightly integrate the jet's avionics. "This is not going to be an easy task, an AESA is the heart and soul of a fighter airplane," McHenry says. "It is a hugely technical challenge."

But the USAF also needs to extend the aircraft's structural life. Lockheed is about to start testing to determine just how much life is left on the F-16 airframe. A test airframe has already been installed on a testing jig and a readiness review was completed on 11 October, McHenry says. Tests should begin by the end of the year.

The modernized USAF and Taiwanese F-16 form a new "baseline" for the Fighting Falcon-also known as the Viper, McHenry says. He notes that South Korea, which picked BAE Systems to modernize its fleet of F-16s, will not benefit from common configurations or shared logistics with the rest of the Viper fleet around the world. As the original manufacturer of the F-16, Lockheed is in the best position to upgrade the jets, he says.

Altogether, McHenry says that Lockheed expects to sell about 550 upgrade kits for the F-16-including USAF and Taiwanese orders. The company also hopes to secure contracts to build 100 new F-16s around the world.

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