Prime Contractors Chasing Big Business Retooling Old Fighters
The F-16 is second only to the F-4 Phantom fighter jet in worldwide popularity. A little more than 4,500 aircraft have been produced since its introduction in the 1970s. More than two-dozen air forces have the F-16 as the core of their current fighter fleets.
While the relatively small, single-engine fighters have been in continuous service since 1978, many will be used well past their planned service lives. Onboard weapon and sensor systems are quickly becoming obsolete. Originally designed to fly 8,000 hours, industry is being asked to extend the fighter’s service lives to beyond 10,000 hours and perhaps as many as 12,000.
With a global F-16 upgrade market estimated at more than $3 billion worth of work on about 3,000 aircraft, the largest defense contractors have joined the race, including Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.
Boeing executives expressed interest in pursuing F-16 upgrades during the Paris Air Show last month. Boeing manufactures the Navy’s F/A-18 and the Air Force’s F-15 jets. Both are sold internationally.
With fifth-generation fighters like the F-35 plagued with delays and cost overruns, many countries — including the United States — are faced with needing to upgrade their F-16 fleets. Some of the largest defense contractors in the aircraft industry are vying to capture business from various foreign air forces seeking such upgrades to the systems and airframes of their existing fighter fleets. The U.S. Air Force and those of Taiwan and South Korea represent the bulk of the overseas market, though the scope of business opportunities is expanding, industry officials said.
The number of F-16s that are still in operation worldwide make the upgrade business a fat target for firms competing to do the work. With more than 1,400 operational aircraft in service with allied air forces, “there certainly are a lot of aircraft to be addressed in the marketplace,” John Bean, vice president of global fighter programs with BAE Systems, told National Defense.
“There are two factors out in the world. One is economies — whether it be the U.S. or international partners — are fairly constrained right now, so the financial resources to spend a lot of money on defense are fairly limited,” Bean said. “Everyone wants to buy the latest and greatest fighter,” but not every country can afford the F-35.
Not only has the F-35 been delayed, it has ended up at a per-plane price point that is prohibitively expensive for many potential foreign customers, Bean said. Countries that either can’t wait for a fifth-generation fighter to emerge, or that will not be able to afford one in the first place, are left needing to squeeze as much capability and life out of existing fleets as possible, he said.
Some air forces are planning to extend the jets’ operational lives to 40 to 45 years, more than twice the 20-year service life for which they were originally designed.
“Customers want to have an aircraft that complements the next-generation F-35 and so they’re looking at upgrading the sensors and mission avionics in the airplane to the same technology that is going on the F-35,” Bean said. “For a lot of countries, the F-16 was and continues to be the just-right size. It was kind of the just-right aircraft that fits nearly everyone’s bill.”
At an average price of around $40 million per aircraft, the single-engine F-16 is more affordable and less costly to operate than its larger cousin, the F-15, or the F-18 optimized for naval use.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry analyst with Teal Group, called it “a remarkable design.”
“At $40 [million] to $45 million flyaway for the Block 52, it continues to be a very marketable product,” Aboulafia wrote in an F-16 market study published in February.
In the past decade, Oman, Poland, Chile, Egypt, Greece, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and Israel have purchased various numbers and models of F-16s, a sales record Aboulafia dubbed a “remarkable achievement … for a 30-plus-year-old fighter.”
At 300 F-16s, Israel has bought more than any country outside the United States. Turkey has a fleet of 308, but many of those were built in that country under a manufacturing agreement with the United States and General Dynamics that also established a native aerospace industry there, according to the Teal Group report.
“Fortunately, the F-16 lends itself to structural enhancements that increase its service life,” Bean said. “They have already been through a couple of [service life extensions] to make sure the airplane reaches the full 8,000 hours it was intended to get. Now we’re looking to extend the life of the F-16 to 10,000 to 12,000 flight hours so we can get that 40 to 45 years of life out of them.”
The U.S. Air Force plans to spend $2.8 billion to upgrade 350 of its around 1,000 F-16s. The aircraft slated for upgrades will be some of the most up-to-date models — Block 40s and 50s — of which there are about 650 in service.
The Air Force started the F-16 upgrade wave out of necessity. With the development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plagued by developmental delays and ballooning cost, the service needed to ensure it maintained a technologically relevant fighter force until that aircraft is operational. Extending the service life of about 300 F-16s was deemed the most effective and economical choice to bridge that gap.
Other nations that own the F-16 — and are either waiting for F-35s or unable to afford the new aircraft — have taken the cue and are seeking upgrades similar to what the Air Force will accomplish through the combat avionics programmed extension suite, or CAPES.
CAPES was funded at $190 million for fiscal year 2013 and the Air Force has requested $248.5 million for 2014. Lockheed Martin has been chosen as the prime systems integrator for the overall upgrade program. A Lockheed spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.
After upgrading its nose-mounted radar, the program calls for improvements to the F-16’s electronic warfare controller and center pedestal display and the installation of an integrated communications module.
Lockheed has been given the reins to decide which contractors will upgrade which portions of the F-16’s systems for the U.S. and Taiwanese air forces. South Korea chose BAE Systems to perform the same function for its planned F-16 upgrades. The first big competition was over who would be chosen to install new radars for the respective fleets.
Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar is in a neck-and-neck race with Raytheon’s Advanced Combat Radar. 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 two-way race to upgrade the F-16’s radar jumped off the blocks earlier in 2013 when South Korea preempted a U.S. decision on which system to choose. Raytheon got a leg up on Northrop when 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. Lockheed announced Aug. 1 that it chose Northrop Grumman to install its SABR systems on U.S. Air Force F-16s. The decision also gives Northrop the $5.3 billion contract to retrofit Taiwan’s 145 F-16A/B Block 20 aircraft with AESA radars, electronic countermeasure and weapons systems and to provide logistical support to that country.
Both radar systems are being offered to foreign militaries that fly the F-16.
South Korea had been expected to make a decision following the U.S. Air Force. Instead, it held its own evaluation and source-selection process outside the traditional foreign military sales process. The U.S. government must eventually approve the contract because federal law requires a foreign military sales contract for AESA technologies.
Raytheon’s offering 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 E/A-18 Growler — and is the only company to have successfully retrofitted the radars onto operational legacy aircraft, said Jim Hvizd, Raytheon’s vice president of international strategy and business development for space and airborne systems.
“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.
BAE Systems has provided about 40 percent of the mission equipment in F-16s around the world. The F-16, originally manufactured by General Dynamics, is now built by Lockheed.
BAE Systems’ experience with the F-16 dates back to the original 1970s-era aircraft, and has included flight control systems and ground support. Additionally, the company supports 270 of the U.S. Air National Guard’s upgraded F-16s and 50 of the Turkish Air Force’s upgraded F-16s.
In Korea, BAE competed head to head with Lockheed Martin’s CAPES offering. Rather than a standard, full-spectrum upgrade package like CAPES, BAE focused on minimizing cost and downtime by developing an upgrade that provides the same operational capability with less impact to the aircraft and is tailored to each country’s specific needs, Bean said.
For the Korean fleet, BAE will perform a range of services, including systems engineering and integration, software and electronics engineering, obsolescence management and logistics support. The work will be performed both in Korea and at BAE’s U.S.-based facilities.
The U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced in July that Greece planned to purchase $250 million worth of spare parts and new engines for its F-16 fleet.
“The uninterrupted sale of spare parts and support will ensure the Hellenic Air Force sustains its aircraft fleet at the highest state of readiness to face any potential threat,” the announcement read.
A similar sale of six F-16s to Egypt was recently put on hold because of civil unrest there. Aboulafia noted that sales of aircraft and upgrades to existing airframes in countries like Pakistan and Iraq are tenuous because of their rocky relationships with the United States caused by civil rights violations and international terrorism.
Turkey, Greece, Singapore and Japan — with between 30 and 130 F-16s apiece — are all looking to upgrade their aircraft in the near term, Bean said. Other countries like Colombia, Romania and Bulgaria are eyeing used F-16s that will need to be upgraded once they are purchased.
“Everywhere the necessary upgrades are pretty much the same as what the U.S. Air Force is doing — figuring out how to get more service life and operational capability as a bridge to the future,” Bean said.