As a result of repeated restructurings, the F-35 fighter program is now expected to deliver only about a quarter of the production aircraft originally planned by 2017 — roughly 400 planes rather than 1,600. This presents a problem for the U.S. Air Force, which is destined to receive most of the domestic F-35s. Production of the companion F-22 fighter was capped at barely half of the service’s operational objective by former defense secretary Robert Gates, and legacy fighters in the fleet weren’t modernized in the expectation that F-35s would soon arrive.
Since it isn’t feasible to restart the F-22 line, the service has opted to modernize its legacy F-15s and F-16s by introducing structural improvements to aging airframes and installing new electronic equipment. Arguably the most important piece of new equipment needed is a radar that can perform more functions without having to be physically rotated. It turns out moving parts are just as hard to maintain in a fighter jet as they are in Chrysler 300. So the Air Force plans to buy an “active electronically scanned array” (AESA), which is engineering jargon for a radar that is steered by shifting the beam rather than physically moving the face of the sensor.
AESA radars are electronic marvels; with the right processors, software and displays, they can do all sorts of things that the existing radars in legacy fighters can’t. Putting one in a 15-year-old F-16 will keep it operationally relevant for many years to come — which is what apparently will be needed at the rate the F-35 program is progressing. However, there isn’t anything that can be done to an F-16 that will make it genuinely stealthy the way the F-35 or F-22 are, so the Air Force needs to be realistic about what it is trying to achieve with F-16 upgrades. Basically, it is buying a bridge capability to the next generation of fighters. That bridge may need to extend two decades into the future, but the important point is to buy it quickly rather than wasting a lot of time and money trying to make it what it can never be — the operational equivalent of an F-35.
The bottom line is that Air Force planners need to settle on a reasonable set of performance specs for the F-16’s new radar, and then pick the lowest-price, technically acceptable solution. This is not a budget environment in which optimization of all performance parameters — “gold-plating” in popular parlance — makes sense. The Air Force should identify its basic needs for an upgraded F-16 and then find the most affordable solution. If it levies too many nice-to-have requirements on the upgrade, it will become very expensive and not reach warfighters in a timely fashion. Let’s keep in mind that the point of upgrading the radars on legacy F-16s is to build a bridge to the next generation of fighters, not a barrier that gets in the way of funding F-35.
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