U.S. Air Force Orders AESA Radar for F-16s

 - March 3, 2020, 5:03 AM
Northrop Grumman technicians install an APG-83 SABR radar in an F-16 trials aircraft at Edwards AFB. (Photo: Northrop Grumman)

Northrop Grumman received an order on February 28 for its APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). The deal covers 15 examples of the radar for engineering, manufacturing, and development, and the first 90 production units. The U.S. Air Force announced on June 17, 2017, that it had selected the APG-83 to upgrade 72 F-16s to meet a Joint Emergent Operational Need raised by U.S. Northern Command for homeland defense.

Worth $262 million, the contract was issued by the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighter Bomber Directorate at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio, and is a modification to a previous deal that brings its value to more than $553 million. The work is being performed at Northrop Grumman’s Linthicum Heights facility in Maryland and is due for completion by the end of 2022.

The U.S. Air Force plans to keep 350 of its F-16 Block 40/42/50/52 aircraft through at least 2048 and is putting them through a service-life extension program (SLEP). As part of the SLEP the aircraft will undergo extensive structural work—including re-winging in some cases—to extend their service lives by 4,000 hours to 12,000. New avionics, and an AESA radar in particular, is a key element of the SLEP.

Drawing on experience with the F-22’s APG-77 and F-35’s APG-81, Northrop Grumman developed the SABR as an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar that can be scaled and tailored to meet a number of applications. Chief among them is the replacement of the mechanically-scanned APG-66/68 radars fitted in the F-16.

In its F-16 configuration, the APG-83 SABR is designed to be of similar form-fit to the original sensor, with similar power/cooling requirements and connections in order to keep necessary modifications to a minimum. A trial unit was test-flown in an F-16 at Edwards AFB, California, in November 2009.

The launch customer for APG-83 was Taiwan, for its F-16V upgrade program. Production of export radars started in 2016, and the first upgraded AESA-equipped aircraft was handed over in October 2018. Singapore, South Korea, and Greece also subsequently selected the SABR over the competing Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), and SABR is a key element of Lockheed Martin’s campaign to sell new-build F-16V Block 70/72s and similar upgrade packages.

With the F-16 radar established in production, Northrop Grumman turned its attention to other applications. In August 2018 the company successfully completed a fit-check of SABR in an F/A-18C Hornet at the request of the U.S. Marine Corps. However, in January 2019 the Marines opted for Raytheon’s APG-79(v)4 AESA radar.

Another line of development for SABR concerns the U.S. Air Force’s bomber fleet, with both B-1Bs and B-52Hs being targeted as applications in a program that began in 2011. A version of the F-16 radar—known as SABR-Global Strike—has been developed with a much larger antenna array for enhanced performance for the B-1B. However, the fighter-size SABR would also considerably improve the B-52’s radar capabilities without the extra cost of the SABR-GS, while also providing commonality with the F-16 sensor.