Farnborough Air Show

Northrop rattles its SABR

 - July 17, 2010, 9:09 AM

Following a successful series of trials in a U.S. Air Force F-16 that began late last year, Northrop Grumman’s SABR (scalable agile beam radar) has been refined to the point where the company says it is ready for production. Since receiving limited export clearance in February, Northrop Grumman has been actively marketing the radar upgrade to a number of F-16 users, and it hopes the U.S. Air Force will move ahead with an F-16 radar upgrade. There currently is no formal U.S. requirement, but that could change very soon, possibly in the next month.

SABR leverages Northrop Grumman’s position as a supplier of active electronically scanned antenna radars for the F-16 Block 60, F-22 and F-35, and also draws on the company’s experience as the incumbent mechanically scanned radar provider for the F-16. By changing two elements– the antenna and the combined receiver/exciter/processor unit– SABR upgrades the current F-16 radar to provide, at a considerably reduced cost, all the benefits that active electronically scanned array (AESA) provides.

The F-16 SABR demonstration was conducted at Edwards AFB at the request of the U.S. Air Force. Despite there being no program of record, as yet, there is a significant interest in updating the U.S. F-16 fleet with AESA radar. The test campaign encompassed 17 flights during which nearly 500 synthetic aperture radar images were produced as part of a thorough and highly successful demonstration of SABR’s capabilities. Following the trials, the system was returned to the laboratory for refinements, particularly to the pilot/vehicle interface, in the light of recommendations from the test pilots who conducted the trials. The radar has subsequently flown some 20 more times in Northrop Grumman’s Sabreliner testbed.

Key to the potential success of the SABR is to keep costs down. To that end much of the software is derived from that of the APG-80 radar in the F-16 Block 60. Additional code comes from the F-22/35 radar programs, in turn providing a useful bridge to the JSF for nations that may operate the aircraft alongside F-16s. Not only can SABR and the F-35’s APG-81 share common repair facilities, but SABR-equipped F-16s would be highly compatible with F-35s in operations, sharing several unique modes.

Other important factors in keeping costs down are the ease of retrofit, maturity of the radar mode suite and the short development schedule. Northrop Grumman asserts that in today’s fiscally challenged environment there is little appetite for long-term development programs. The radar is considered production-ready, and the company has demonstrated that two technicians can retrofit SABR in less than two days.

SABR can be installed in any F-16, but is aimed primarily at the later blocks, which have much longer lives remaining. Older aircraft could benefit, however, by a cascading of newer mechanically scanned radars from aircraft undergoing AESA refit.