Boeing is aggressively pursuing the international market for F-16 upgrades and sees its QF-16 conversion of the fighter into an unmanned target drone as serving as a testbed for further unmanned technology development. The manufacturer also sees potential for international sales of a refurbished A-10 Warthog, another of the non-Boeing-built aircraft in its modernization portfolio.
Paul Cejas, chief engineer of “Off-Boeing” programs, said the QF-16 conversion Boeing is delivering for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) led to its pursuit of the market for potentially hundreds of U.S. and international F-16 upgrades. “Obviously that’s a big addressable market,” Cejas told reporters participating in a Boeing press trip May 20 in San Antonio. “We’re a little late in the game, but we have been investing for international opportunities as well as domestic opportunities. That is a market that we are being aggressive in.”
Cejas said Boeing is developing a line of computers that would replace “any version of the [F-16] mission system computers that are out there.” Having access to the “brains” of the Lockheed Martin-built fighter would allow Boeing to compete for mission display, flight management system and radar upgrades. The USAF has invited Boeing and Raytheon to compete for its MMC7000A fire control computer upgrade of F-16 Block 40-52 fighters, and Boeing is now building prototypes in St. Louis, he said. The manufacturer was helped time-wise in the development when the Air Force deferred a planned F-16 combat avionics program extension suite, or Capes, upgrade to accommodate budget constraints.
Asked about BAE Systems’ experience in first winning, then losing, South Korea’s program to upgrade 134 F-16s when the U.S. government raised the price of the foreign military sale, Cejas said “we are going in with eyes open.” Boeing will display its upgrade solution at the F-16 and Proven Aircraft World Wide Review in Ogden, Utah, in September.
Boeing’s selection by the USAF in 2010 to begin engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) of the QF-16 “was a critical win for us” that helped start the F-16 upgrade effort, Cejas said. Boeing and the service completed the first flight of an unmanned QF-16 from Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., on Sept. 19, 2013.
The manufacturer has delivered all six EMD aircraft and the first two of 13 low-rate initial production Lot 1 aircraft. It is planning growth capabilities, including GPS-based navigation, and sees the QF-16 as a testbed for unmanned technology development over the long term.
Cejas surprised reporters by raising the prospect of upgrading and selling to international customers the venerable A-10 Thunderbolt II jet, which the USAF has sought to retire but Congress continues to preserve. Boeing and suppliers including Korea Aerospace Industries are providing replacement wings for the A-10, and have delivered 103 of the 173 shipsets on contract.
A refurbished A-10 might include a new engine, a helmet-mounted cueing system and a targeting pod. There are approximately 200 active A-10s and 60 in long-term storage, Cejas said. If the U.S. government consented to foreign military sales of the close air support jet, “that is something we’d be interested in,” he added.