Northrop and Raytheon battle for F-16 AESA radar business
Northrop Grumman and Raytheon are going head-to-head with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar programs to update F-16 fighters and other fighters around the world. Northrop Grumman announced yesterday that it now has U.S. State Department licenses to talk to a number of export customers at DSP-5 level, a status that Raytheon announced for its proposals in November.
The RACR (Raytheon advanced combat radar) draws on the company’s experience of providing AESA radars for the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15 Eagle, while the credentials for Northrop Grumman’s SABR (scalable agile beam radar) come from providing e-scan sensors for the F-22, F-35 and F-16 Block 60. Northrop Grumman is also the incumbent mechanically scanned array (MSA) radar provider for the F-16, but Raytheon also boasts close involvement in the F-16 program as the main mission computer supplier.
Northrop Grumman launched the SABR at the Singapore Airshow two years ago, and last month completed a series of seven demonstration flights in an F-16 at Edwards AFB, following air trials in the company’s Sabreliner testbed that first flew with the radar in November 2008. During the F-16 flights, which were undertaken in response to a retrofit feasibility request from the U.S. Air Force’s air combat command, the radar exceeded predicted performance in the five cornerstone modes (air-to-air search, air-to-air track, synthetic aperture, ground moving target indication and air-to-surface ranging) upon which other modes are based.
Northrop Grumman is continuing work on the SABR, including pricing initiatives to keep its cost to within what Dave Silvia, the company’s business development manager for the program, calls “the mechanically scanned price range.” The SABR is classed as being at Technology Readiness Level 7 (that is, a prototype has flown), but further development work will be undertaken this year to expand the radar’s modes from the baseline five. This will involve further flight trials in the Sabreliner testbed, which is outfitted with F-16 avionics.
Raytheon’s competing program was officially launched at the Farnborough airshow in 2008. The company is yet to fly the RACR, but intends to do so in the first half of this year in the form of production-representative hardware, rather than a developmental item. The sensor has already been fitted twice to F-16s for ground tests, once at Lockheed Martin and once at Edwards AFB, where flightline installation was demonstrated in under an hour.
Like the SABR, the radar has been fully checked out in Lockheed Martin’s Systems Integration Laboratory, and it uses the standard F-16 OFP software, cooling and power supplies. The company highlights that its radar is considered production-ready. It shares around 90 percent commonality with the APG-79 AESA in the Super Hornet, of which over 180 have been delivered. APG-79s have achieved over 100,000 hours of operation (out of Raytheon’s 140,000 hours of operational AESA time), lending credibility to the company’s predicted performance and reliability figures for the RACR.
Both the RACR and SABR offer F-16 operators the chance to upgrade the capabilities of their aircraft at low cost. Key factors in keeping costs down are to fit the new sensors while using existing power supplies and cooling systems, and with no airframe disturbance. At the same time, leveraging other radar product lines provides economies of scale through bulk buying power and the lack of need for separate production facilities.
Once in service, the AESA radar should eventually pay for itself in reduced maintenance costs alone, which are lowered to around 10 percent of those associated with an MSA radar, and exhibit a mean time between failures of around 1,000 hours. Raytheon, for instance, suggests that the graceful degradation of the array’s modules means that the antenna should last for around 15,000 hours before performance is affected significantly.
Raytheon’s director of F-16 international programs, Larry Seeley, further explains the RACR’s maintenance advantages: “It’s a two-level maintenance item, either flightline or depot, with nothing in between. The built-in test equipment shows which circuit boards are faulty, and they can be exchanged in less than 30 minutes on the flightline and sent off for repair at the depot. Reliability and the ability to perform the mission are also better because there is no single point of failure with the AESA radar.”
Estimates suggest that up to 2,000 F-16s worldwide could be the subject of various sustainment programs, and AESA is of great interest to several customers. Neither Raytheon nor Northrop Grumman will comment, but AIN understands that Singapore, South Korea and Greece may be among the nations for which export licenses have been issued.
However, the big prize is the U.S. Air Force itself, which has indicated that it intends to sustain a portion of its F-16 fleet. Potential export customers may wait to see what the U.S. Air Force does first before committing to an AESA retrofit. While the F-16 community represents the biggest opportunity, the modification potential for other fighters, notably the “classic” F/A-18 Hornet, is not being overlooked by either company. Raytheon, at least, has already fit-checked a RACR in a legacy Hornet.