F-16 Radar Upgrade Competition Heats Up Between Northrop, Raytheon
Delays in the development and fielding of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have underscored the need for the U.S. military and its allies to keep current jets technologically relevant.
It has not been decided whether the U.S. Air Force will outfit about 300 F-16s with Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) or Raytheon’s Advanced Combat Radar (RACR). Both are capability upgrades from existing systems that give pilots much greater image resolution and target recognition.
Both are multifunction active electronically scanned array radars, which improve upon the passive scanned systems currently installed in the nosecones of F-16 fighters.
The ongoing two-way race to upgrade the F-16’s radar jumped off the blocks last week when South Korea preempted a U.S. decision on which system to choose. Raytheon got a leg up on Northrop when last week the Republic of Korea Air Force chose the RACR for its F-16 fleet. The competition in South Korea was the first real evaluation of the two competing F-16 radar capabilities.
The radar upgrade is the first and largest of four components to the combat avionics programmed extension suite, or CAPES. After the radar upgrade, the programs calls for improvements to the F-16’s electronic warfare controller, center pedestal display and the installation of an integrated communications module. Lockheed Martin has been chosen as the prime contractor for the overall upgrade program. CAPES was funded at $190 million for fiscal year 2013 and the Air Force has requested $248.5 million for 2014. Executives declined to speculate on how much the Air Force would spend on the radar program.
RACR is a redesign of radars designed for the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-15 Strike Eagle. Raytheon has built a total of 500 AEAS systems for four widely used platforms — the other two are the B-2 Spirit bomber and EA-18 Growler — and is the only company to have successfully retrofitted the radars onto operational legacy aircraft, said Jim Hvizd, , vice president of international strategy and business development for space and airborne systems, told National Defense in an interview.
Raytheon is playing up its experience retrofitting legacy aircraft as a cost savings and hedge against risk. Hvizd said RACR can be installed on an F-16 and the aircraft will be operational in three hours.
SABR is the same radar Northrop developed for fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The system brings the technological capability of those aircraft back to legacy platforms, said Joseph Ensor, Northrop’s vice president and general manager of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting systems.
“We have been the only radar supplier on the F-16 since its introduction almost 40 years ago,” Ensor told reporters April 16 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The company built the aircraft’s first radar in the 1970s — the APG-66 mechanical antenna radar — its first AESA radar and 11 versions of the device since.
“When we developed this radar system, we were able to do it very quickly,” Ensor said. “We were able to take the software developed for the F-22 and F-35 and port it over to the F-16. Typically integrating a radar of this complexity onto a fighter aircraft like the F-16 would take weeks or even months. We were able to do that in two days with two people. It’s extremely quick.”
SABR also provides Big Synthetic Aperture Radar, which company officials have dubbed “Big” SAR mapping. It will give unprecedented clarity and definition of imagery in the cockpit, Ensor said. The sensor provides 1-mile-square images on a multifunction display in the cockpit that are crisp enough to make out aircraft, buildings and foliage on the ground. The system is also capable of automatic target recognition.
As prime contractor Lockheed actually holds the authority to evaluate and choose between the two radars. A decision by Lockheed for the U.S. Air Force and about 150 radar systems for Taiwan is expected in March.
While several international allies are also in the market for extensive upgrades to their F-16 fleets, CAPES is unique to the United States. The Air Force plans to upgrade 300 aircraft to compensate for delays in development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The affect of Pentagon budget cuts on both the F-16 program and the F-35 remain to be seen.
Both radar systems are being offered to foreign militaries that fly the F-16.
South Korea had been expected to make a decision after the U.S. Air Force. Instead, it held its own evaluation and source-selection process outside traditional foreign military sales process. The contract must eventually be approved by the U.S. government because federal law requires an FMS contract for AESA technologies.
“They ran a very detailed and extensive evaluation of the capabilities for their requirements and decided RACR was superior,” Hvizd said. “Clearly other FMS customers and the U.S. will be looking for an AESA in the future and they will use the Korean decision in their evaluations.”
“The requirements that the Koreans chose are fundamentally the same as those of other countries interested in AESA, including the U.S. Air Force,” he added.
South Korea formally began the FMS process several months ago when it named BAE Systems as lead systems integrator for the F-16 radar upgrade. The move was unconventional for FMS, but not unlike many U.S. procurement contracts where a system manufacturer does not perform the integration onto platforms.
Ensor was not swayed by Raytheon’s early success, saying that Northrop remains well positioned to score the U.S. contract.
“We’re part of that competition,” Ensor said. “It’s still alive today. I think we’re well positioned based on the technology and our offering.”
“Actually, nothing is a given. We still have to compete and win that program,” he added. “We’re still in a good position to compete for the U.S. Air Force [contract] and Taiwan and many of the other countries.”
Northrop officials are actively courting other international customers and the door remains open to provide AESA radars for aircraft owned by other U.S. military services, Ensor said.
Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin Corp., Northrop Grumman Corp., Raytheon Co.