The Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60 operated by the United Arab Emirates air force could be described as military aviation’s version of a “missing link.” Its on-board systems are the most advanced of any F-16 ever built, so much so that it bridges the gap between the futuristic capabilities of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the previous F-16C/D Block 50 series.
Most notable are the Block 60’s APG-80 and the F-35’s APG-81 radar sets, both built by Northrop Grumman and very similar in capability. Both radars are active electronically scanning arrays (AESA), which represent the new generation of radar technology now being used in fighter aircraft.
There are F-16 customers, however, who would like to have this sort of technology in their air force, but they cannot purchase a Block 60 (the UAE owns the intellectual rights to this design by virtue of having paid for much of it) and they may not want to or be able to procure an F-35 for some time. For these customers Lockheed Martin and its F-16 team partners are exploring the idea of integrating some version of the APG-80 onboard the F-16C/D series, making it a “Block 50 plus” configuration.
Adding an AESA to the Block 50 is billed as a reasonable improvement for those nations who feel that at the present time they do not require the stealthy design and other advanced features of the F-35. For them, this too could make as big a difference in combat performance as the Raytheon APG-63(V)2 radar has for the Boeing F-15–most notably reducing reliance on airborne early warning and control platforms.
Two problems remain, however, despite the attractiveness of this concept. One is that the costs of integrating an AESA into the Block 50 will not be insignificant and this is an issue as far as the potential customer base is concerned. The other obstacle is getting the approval of the U.S. Air Force. Historically the Pentagon has been unwilling to approve the improvement of a U.S. built weapon system that would give export customers a superior product to that operated by the USAF.