Singapore Air Show

F-16 Upgrade Contenders Dogfight in Singapore

 - February 12, 2014, 7:30 AM
Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16s, including this two-seat block 52 on display here at the Singapore Airshow, are slated for upgrade.

ARTICLE UPDATE: This story corrects an editing error that appeared in the February 13 edition of Singapore Airshow News in the third paragraph.

The war of words between the system integrators and radar houses that are chasing the F-16 upgrade market intensified here this week. With 3,500 Fighting Falcons still flying, at least one-third of which might be upgraded, the stakes are high. Here in Singapore, BAE Systems Inc. and Raytheon are hoping that the local Ministry of Defence will entertain their rival proposals for a contract that could be worth almost $2.5 billion, and consider them above the solution offered by Lockheed Martin (LM) and Northrop Grumman (NG).

Lockheed Martin confirmed to AIN on Tuesday, that it is now under contract from Taiwan for the kits that will enable the Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) to upgrade its fleet of 150 F-16A/Bs. Some time ago, the ROCAF followed the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in choosing LM’s solution, labeled the F-16V, which comprises the NG scalable agile beam radar (SABR); a new center pedestal display; new electronic warfare system; and additional functionality in the mission computer.

Bill McHenry, LM’s F-16 business development manager, denied allegations that Taiwan will have to pay more than the $1.85 billion that was previously announced, to upgrade 145 F-16A/B models. The speculation has arisen because budget pressures seem likely to force the USAF to abandon the upgrade of its own large fleet, thus potentially increasing the cost to others. But as Jeff Leavitt, v-p combat avionics at NG noted here yesterday, the USAF has almost fully funded development of the SABR in the past three years, and it is technically mature. Leavitt delivered a measured but forceful case for air forces to choose the SABR rather than the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR). After outlining some special features such as “big” SAR mapping at high resolution, and auto-target cueing, Leavitt said that SABR was “on schedule and within the target price.”

The message from both LM and NG this week was that they are the reliable incumbents, with vast experience of updating the F-16 already. “We have a lineage of commonality, bringing multiple customers together,” McHenry told AIN. In a tilt at BAE Systems, he added: “The radar is the heart-and-soul of a fighter aircraft–to replace it is a significant challenge. We have the most experience of integrating AESAs, having done the F-16 Block 60, the F-22 and F-35.”

BAE Systems claims competence to upgrade F-16s on its status as a major subsystems supplier on the jet, including electronic warfare, plus a series of significant work programs on the U.S. Air National Guard fleet, including a high-speed Internet backbone. John Bean, v-p global fighter programs at BAE’s U.S.-based Support Solutions organization, told AIN: “We package the boxes…to be easily adaptable. We avoid excessive downtime…there’s no need to gut the airplane.”

BAE’s message hit home in Korea, which preferred the company to LM for the upgrade of more than 130 F-16C/Ds. After a separate evaluation of the radars, the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) chose the RACR instead of the SABR. Raytheon claimed recently to be “the industry leader in AESA technology development” to include retrofitting F-15s and F-18s.

Singapore seems likely to be the third country to confirm an upgrade, to about 60 F-16C/D/D+ models. As well as the radar, the upgrade would likely include helmet-mounted cueing systems, weapons for testing and integration (such as AIM-9X and Mavericks) and Paveway guided bombs, plus new GPS guidance equipment and IFF system.

A recent notification to U.S. Congress by the Pentagon carefully avoided specifying the system integrator or the radar, in what would be a $2.43 billion program. The Singapore aircraft are unique outside Israel in having an Elbit mission computer known as the I-GAC, rather than the GAC or MMC versions found on other F-16s. They also have Israeli weapons and electronic warfare systems. Singapore insisted on this to preserve independence in operational flight programing. An informed source told AIN here this week that the U.S. has conceded this point in respect to the F-16 upgrade, paving the way for Singapore to revert to an upgraded MMC, if it so chooses.