Cancellation of F-16 Upgrades Muddies International Fighter Market
In its 2015 budget submission, the Air Force terminated its Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) effort to upgrade 350 of its around 1,000 F-16 fighters.
The program was terminated for financial reasons, Maj. Gen. James F. Martin, deputy Air Force secretary for budget said March 11.
The Air force had planned to spend a total $2.8 billion for the CAPES upgrades. The aircraft slated for upgrades would be some of the most up-to-date models — Block 40s and 50s — of which there are about 650 in service.
CAPES was funded at $250 million in 2014, an increase from about $190 million the previous year. Lockheed Martin is the prime systems integrator for the overall upgrade program.
Program upgrades included replacement of the nose-mounted radar, improvement to the electronic warfare controller and center pedestal display and the installation of an integrated communications module.
The Air Force started the F-16 upgrade wave out of necessity. The service needed to ensure it maintained a technologically relevant fighter force until the beleaguered F-35 joint strike fighter is operational. Extending the service life of about 300 F-16s was deemed the most effective and economical choice to bridge that gap.
But the fiscally constrained Air Force has prioritized new aircraft and systems over stopgap upgrades to legacy systems, Martin said. That theme ran throughout the service’s 2015 budget request.
Since 1990, the aircraft fleet has dropped from about 9,000 to around 5,000 and the average age of the aircraft has increased to 27 years, Martin said.
“As our fleet continues to get older and smaller, we know that potential adversaries are investing in new technology and updating their inventories,” he said.
So the Air Force has bet the farm on acquiring the KC-46 air refueling tanker, the F-35 joint strike fighter and a new long-range strike bomber, he said.
The service in 2015 has programmed $16 billion for design and development for a new long-range strike bomber developmental and operational testing of F-35 Block 2B and 3F software testing and modifications and development and testing to support the KC-46’s first flight, which is scheduled for June.
Another $18.5 billion in procurement funding will allow the service to “sustain the production ramps for the top modernization programs,” Martin said.
That includes the first production lot of seven KC-46s; 26 F-35As in fiscal 2015 and growing to 60 aircraft by fiscal 2018 and multi-year procurement for several variants of the C-130, he said.
Protecting those programs from cuts cost the F-16 fleet its new nosecone radars and avionics upgrades. The decision was likely a careful bet that buying new was more feasible in the long term than adding capabilities to an aging platform, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with industry watchdog Teal Group.
“They are sort of throwing up their hands and saying we have to make a choice between all new planes and basic capability upgrades,” Aboulafia said. “The F-35 numbers are getting cut already. It’s not really clear that cutting the buy further would be a feasible or wise idea. Purchasing just a capabilities upgrade doesn’t do much good if you’ve got the fleet fatiguing out of use.”
The Air Force now has decided to perform a less-complex service life extension program on the F-16 in hopes that the F-35 will achieve operational capability before the legacy jet becomes obsolete.
“It is the least bad of all the bad choices made necessary by a constrained budget environment,” he added.
The Air Force’s decision throws a wrench in the plans of several non-U.S. militaries that own F-16s and had planned to follow the U.S. lead in upgrading their fleets.
Northrop Grumman’s Scalable Agile Beam Radar is in a neck-and-neck race with Raytheon’s Advanced Combat Radar as the preferred upgrade for the F-16’s manual-scan nosecone system. Both are multifunction active electronically scanned array radars, which improve upon the passive scanned systems currently installed in the nosecones of F-16 fighters.
Raytheon got a leg up on Northrop when the South Korean Air Force chose the RACR for its F-16 fleet. South Korea also bucked the system by choosing BAE Systems, rather than Lockheed, as the systems integrator for its F-16 upgrade program. Lockheed alternatively chose Northrop Grumman to install its SABR systems on U.S. Air Force F-16s.
Directly tied to funding of the CAPES program was a plan by Taiwan to install that equipment on the 146 F-16s it bought in the 1990s.
Aboulafia said the decision to cancel CAPES effectively sends Taiwan shopping again and leaves a wide open international market that now favors Raytheon. It is unlikely, he said, that the international market is big enough for two competing radar manufacturers.
“The problem now is that the U.S. Air Force had endorsed the CAPES solution. Taiwan had endorsed that solution and the prime contractor is going to want to work with the preferred radar provider, presumably. Raytheon now has the only order and that’s not nothing.”