U.S. Air Force Begins F-16 AESA Multi-ship Trials

 - August 7, 2020, 11:58 AM
Four F-16s from Eglin’s two test units prepare for a multi-ship AESA assessment mission. Three of the aircraft sport the latest single-tone mid-grey Have Glass V scheme. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has successfully demonstrated operations with four Lockheed Martin F-16Cs fitted with active electronically steered array radars, the service announced in August. Four F-16Cs—two from the 40th Flight Test Squadron and two from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron—last month operated from their home base at Eglin AFB, Florida, each fitted with the Northrop Grumman APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR).

Each aircraft carried an AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod and ASQ-213 HARM Targeting System pod, both of which can be integrated with the operations of the radar. Three of them wore the latest Have Glass V paint scheme, an all-over mid-grey covering of radar-absorbing paint.

The tests were conducted on July 2 under the aegis of the Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force (OFP CTF). The squadrons represent both developmental (40th FLTS) and operational (85th TES) test aspects, which are brought together by the OFP CTF into a joint trials campaign. Flying against and with F-15 Eagles, the trials assessed whether there was any interference between the radars and whether their capability was improved or degraded when they were working together in close proximity. The four-ship is the standard fighting formation for most air combat missions.

In comparison with the F-16’s legacy radar—the mechanically-scanned APG-68—the APG-83 offers improved air-to-air performance and better ground-mapping, as well as assisting in the defense suppression role.

 “This capability allows us to target the northwest corner of a small building or the cockpit of an aircraft from several miles away, beyond-line-of-sight,” said Jack Harman, 40th FLTS F-16 test pilot. “[The radar] improves our ability to identify the threat prior to us being targeted—we no longer have to be inside a threat envelope in order to detect it.”

Drawing on technology from the APG-77 and APG-81 radars in the F-22 and F-35, the APG-83 is at the heart of the F-16V/Block 70 program for new-build and upgraded F-16s. The radar has already been selected by a number of export customers as part of upgrade programs or included in new-build purchases. The first radars were delivered for Taiwan in late 2016.

In June 2017 the SABR was selected for installation in 72 F-16s for the U.S. Air National Guard to meet a U.S. Northern Command Joint Emergent Operational Need for improved homeland defense. In January 2020 the first installations were completed on F-16s at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland.

Beyond that initial requirement, the Air Force wishes to roll out the APG-83 across around 350 F-16s in its fleet as part of a major structural and equipment life extension program. “From an F-16 standpoint, we haven’t received significant hardware in years,” said Harman. “We’re undergoing at least 13 new programs for the aircraft and it’s happening almost simultaneously.”

In December 2019 an umbrella contract was signed for 372 APG-83 radars to be delivered by 2027. A $262 million order for the first 90 of them, plus 15 for trials, was firmed up in February.