Wednesday, October 28, 2009

South Korea to retrofit F-16 with AESA radar upgrade soon

By Bradley Perrett in Seoul and Douglas Barrie in London

South Korea is planning to retrofit an active, electronically scanned array radar to its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16s, sparking a competition liable to be repeated for a swath of Fighting Falcon operators.

The South Korean air force will likely issue a request for proposals in 2010 or early 2011 for an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for its F‑16C/D aircraft. The air force has around 40 Block 32 aircraft and 140 Block 52-standard aircraft.

South Korea is believed to be looking to upgrade 135 aircraft, most likely all at the Block 52 standard. Under present plans, upgraded aircraft will enter service in 2014-15.

Seoul’s pending competition could also pose some challenges for the U.S. administration in terms of technology release. Raytheon has already been cleared to offer its RACR (Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar) AESA, while Northrop Grumman is still awaiting U.S. approval for its Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). The South Korean air force has already had a classified briefing on Raytheon’s RACR.

South Korean technology access aspirations may also go unfulfilled, at least initially, if either the Raytheon or Northrop Grumman radar is selected.

Replacing the F-16’s mechanically scanned array radar with an AESA will provide not only performance but reliability and maintenance improvements. Radar performance is at least doubled, while reliability is improved by an order of magnitude. The latter has significant through-life cost implications when compared with the maintenance bill for supporting conventional radar.

Seoul’s program is running on about the same time scale as a similar U.S. Air Force requirement for retrofitting its F-16s with an AESA. South Korea, however, is expected to keep pushing ahead independently, since grafting the local program on to the U.S. effort could delay deployment by up to two years.

Either country could make the first selection between Northrop Grumman’s SABR, which is a derivative of the APG‑80 in the F-16E/F, and the Raytheon RACR, which has been developed from the APG-79 fitted to the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

The total F-16 market for AESA technology may exceed 1,000 units. Along with South Korea, Greece has also had a classified briefing on the RACR as it considers a similar upgrade for its F-16 fleet, and many other air forces will likely follow as the aircraft’s life is extended. Industry executives suggest an overall contract value in the billions of dollars.

One non-U.S. manufacturer doubts that anyone but Raytheon and Northrop Grumman has much chance of getting the South Korean contract.

Washington is likely to try to keep foreign competitors out by using its diplomatic clout and its contract rights to control the F-16 configuration, says an official from that company, who adds that they will bid anyway.

U.S. government restrictions on technology transfer may also frustrate South Korean ambitions to advance its own know-how from the F-16 upgrade, which also includes cockpit improvements.

“For an AESA radar, the technology transfer will be very limited,” says Arlene Camp, Northrop Grumman’s director of F-16 radar programs. But experience from earlier projects suggests that the U.S. will become progressively less restrictive, she adds.

“As time evolves, I am sure there would be more [technology] available for transfer at the end of the program than at the beginning.”

South Korean defense electronics supplier LIG Nex 1 hopes to participate in the program. The company has designed an AESA concept radar but its executives acknowledge that it does not have the technical experience to develop that concept into a system that could be installed in the F-16 in any reasonable time scale.

Northrop Grumman is targeting the F-16 market in South Korea but thinks it might also have a chance to fit the radar to Korean Aerospace Industries’ TA-50 and FA-50, even though the Elta EL/M-2032 has already been chosen for that aircraft. “There is a desire for commonality in the South Korean air force,” says Camp.

The antenna and back end of the SABR can be scaled to fit aircraft smaller and larger than the F-16. Northrop Grumman says it has developed the SABR with an eye on both the U.S. and export markets.

Designed specifically for retrofitting, it can be installed with less space, power and cooling than the APG-80 needs, says the manufacturer.

Like the RACR, it has been installed in a Block 50 F-16 to confirm physical compatibility. Flight tests should be complete by the end of the year, Northrop Grumman says.

The Block 50 was chosen for the testing because that model is the most challenging: The extra equipment added to successive versions of the F-16 have left the Block 50 with the least resources remaining for a retrofitted radar.

Raytheon will begin flight testing a production standard RACR on an F-16 in the first half of 2010.


Russian (or Israeli or Europeans) should start its own effort to retrofit its jets with a scalable AESA. The experience is there and so is the volume of Eastern or European designs. AESA is a task-multiplier, that's for sure.

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