Rival F-16 Upgrades Proceed; Iraq Delivery May Not

 - July 23, 2014, 4:07 PM
Rival F-16 upgrade providers are locked in combat for new business from Singapore, Greece and elsewhere. Meanwhile, this F-16B for Iraq may be going nowhere. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

Lockheed Martin (LM) and BAE Systems reported progress this month on their rival upgrades for F-16 Fighting Falcons. Two aircraft from each company’s launch customer (Taiwan for LM, South Korea for BAE) are now in rework, ironically just a few miles from each other in Fort Worth, Texas. Meanwhile, the ferry of Iraq’s first two new Block 52 aircraft in September is looking unlikely.

Bill McHenry, LM’s F-16 program director, said that the F-16V upgrade design review is complete, Elbit has delivered some of the new cockpit displays, and Northrop Grumman is slated to deliver the first scaleable agile beam radar (SABR) radar later this year. Although the U.S. Air Force can no longer afford the same upgrade, for budget reasons, McHenry noted that the FY2015 defense budget has allocated funds to upgrade the F-16’s core computer and for some cockpit upgrades, and speculated that the Air Force would eventually adopt a ‘Capes-Lite’ (the F-16V upgrade was previously designated the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite). For sure, he said, those aircraft must be able to communicate with the stealthy F-22s and F-35s in some way.

A few miles from LM’s giant Fort Worth facility, BAE Systems has begun work on two Korean F-16s at Alliance Airport. It says the program marks the first time a non-original equipment manufacturer is performing a major upgrade for a fourth-generation U.S. fighter jet. The BAE upgrade features a rival AESA radar, the Raytheon Air Combat Radar (RACR). BAE claims its solution offers higher-definition displays, greater decoupling of front and rear cockpits of two-seaters, and an Ethernet-based system that allows faster data transfer. Before the first modified KF-16 takes off in 2016, BAE Systems will test-fly the new avionics and radar in a commercial aircraft testbed.

John Bean, v-p and general manager of global fighter programs at BAE Systems, said that between 1,000 and 1,300 of the approximately 3,000 F-16s flying today are ripe for upgrade, representing approximately $10 billion of potential business over the next decade. “We expect to get the majority of that work,” he added. BAE also hopes that the U.S. Air Force competes any ‘Capes-Lite’ work rather than awards it sole-source to LM.

Earlier this year, LM and BAE were in a dogfight over who will upgrade some  60 F-16C/Ds for Singapore, with LM apparently on the inside track. The island state has still not made its choice, it seems. “We believe they have taken a pause to re-evaluate,” said BAE’s Bean. “We’re still in dialogue,” said LM’s McHenry. Greece could be the next battleground.

Meanwhile, LM continues to offer structural improvements that extend the service life of Block 40s and 50s to 10,000 or 12,000 hours from 8,000, and two distinct avionics updates to Block 20s and 30s. Approximately 40 new-build Block 50 aircraft are in the backlog, in theory extending production to 2017.

But 34 of those are for Iraq, two having already flown and been ceremonially handed over at Fort Worth. This first pair are due to be ferried to Balad airbase in Iraq in September, and the first four Iraqi F-16 pilots have been trained. But McHenry reported that the 23 Lockheed Martin personnel already preparing Balad were evacuated to Baghdad at the U.S. government’s request, when ISIS forces advanced south last month. “Everything was moving along, but now it’s up in the air,” McHenry said.