U.S. Air Force will see over 350 of its F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth-generation multirole fighters upgraded with new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, under a new $1 billion contract granted by the Northrop Grumman Systems by the Department of Defense.
This follows the signing of a $243.8 million contract to upgrade 72 with new radars signed in 2017. The U.S. Air Force currently has over 1000 F-16 Fighting Falcons in its inventory, several hundred of which are active in frontline service, and the upgrades will be key to keeping the aircraft viable into the 2020s and possibly even the 2030s.
The Fighting Falcon first entered service in the U.S. Air Force over 41 years ago, and many both in the U.S. Military and in allied nations such as Singapore have alluded to its growing obsolescence – with the aircraft expected to be obsolete by 2025.
While programs to improve the fighters’ radars and electronic warfare systems have been initiated, the added weight of these systems further compromises the Fighting Falcon’s flight performance.
No improvements to engines, radar cross-section or flight performance have been made under these upgrade programs, but superior situational awareness provided by new sensors can potentially keep the fighters at least somewhat viable to fly supporting missions alongside newer more advanced aircraft such as the F-35 and upcoming F-X sixth-generation fighter.
F-16s in the American inventory is set to integrate the AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), which is derived from the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81 developed for the F-35 fifth-generation fighters.
Integration of these new radars will provide Fighting Falcons with seriously enhanced situational awareness rivaling that of the F-35, although the smaller size of the AN/APG-83 relative to the AN/APG-81 and the F-16’s lack of infrared tracking systems or comparable data links still leave it at a significant disadvantage. AESA radars are not only more powerful than their passive counterparts but are also harder to jam and less susceptible to electronic warfare efforts.
The radars also leave a smaller radar signature which will increase the fighters’ survivability. The U.S. Air Force was the second in the world to deploy AESA radar-equipped fighters after Japan, which integrated Mitsubishi J/APG-1 radars onto the F-2 fighter – an indigenous derivative of the F-16 with seriously enhanced capabilities.
They have since been widely deployed on next-generation fighters, from China’s J-16 and J-10C to the Russian Su-57 and MiG-35. American fighters designed to deploy AESA radars include the F-22, F-35, F-16V, and the F-15X – the last which has yet to enter service but has been ordered by the Air Force.
Older fighters such as the F-18E and F-15C have also begun to deploy the new radars under ambitious upgrade programs, while export model fighters such as the F-15QA and F-16E for Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also deploy these radars.