Image 5: F-16 technology demonstrator with diverterless supersonic inlet
Upgrades to Lower Radar Signature
Image 6: low-observable asymmetric nozzle technology demonstrator on the F-16
- Have Glass I canopy & Have Glass II radar absorbent material (RAM) coatings
- composite materials from Lockheed/Mitsubishi F-2
- Internal weapons pod
The incorporation of DSI into a mass production variant of the F-16 is likely unfeasible despite the significant reductions to the F-16's frontal rcs that would result from its incorporation into the design. However, incorporating Have Glass I, Have Glass II, composite materials from the F-2, and an internal weapon pod remain feasible and relatively inexpensive. Both Have Glass I and Have Glass II are already used to reduce the radar cross section of operational F-16s (Evangelidis, 2004). In conjunction Mitsubishi, Lockheed Martin has already developed composite materials used in the construction of the F-2 (a modified Japanese F-16 variant) which both reduces the weight of the aircraft and slightly reduces its radar cross section (Defense Industry Daily, 2013). Boeing's development of a low-observable weapons pod for the F/A-18E Block III demonstrates the feasibility for developing a similar pod for the F-16. A low observable weapons pod would limit radar returns that typically result from the carriage of armaments on external wing mounted pylons.
The combination of all of these features would significantly reduce the radar cross section of the F-16 but the aircraft will not be comparable to the F-35 due to the radar returns resulting from the F-16's unstealthy vertical tail and lack of planform alignment. Furthermore, this heavily upgraded F-16 would have easily detectable electronic emissions and would only have limited infrared spectrum protection from Have Glass II. However, the goal of proposed comprehensive F-16 upgrade program is merely to grant the F-16 a competitive edge over other low-end fighter aircraft, not to attempt to match the F-35 in low observability characteristics. Furthermore, if the level of technological sophistication is too high, the aircraft's export prospects will be diminished as a result of the AECA. Thus, the incorporation of the most feasible low observable recommendations would fulfill both making the F-16 more competitive against other reduced radar cross section low-end fighter designs and the level of technological sophistication would likely not pose a major problem with regards to exports. Furthermore, it is likely the composition of the Have Glass II RAM can be downgraded as needed to alleviate export concerns.
Image 7: Have Glass II RAM treatment with characteristic speckled texture. Have Glass II has been applied to over 1,700 F-16s using the Computer Aided Spray Paint Expelling Robot (CASPER) which also applies RAM coatings to the F-22 (Evangelidis, 2004). Have Glass II is typically applied to F-16CJ "Wild Weasel" aircraft which hunt surface-to-air missile sites.
Improvements to Maneuverability
- 32,500 lbf capable F110-GE-132 turbofan or
- thrust vectoring engine technology from VISTA
- power-by-wire flight control system
- composite materials from existing Lockheed/Mitsubishi F-2 program to lower aircraft weight
As with the radar signature reduction features, adding all of these maneuverability enhancements is impractical. While adding thrust vectoring to the F-16 from the VISTA program would undoubtedly yield extensive tangible improvements to the F-16's maneuverability characteristics, adding thrust vectoring would also almost certainly be the most expensive upgrades on the list of potential maneuverability related proposals. However, the F110-GE-132 turbofan is already in production and in use in UAE F-16E/F Block 60 aircraft. The F110-GE-132 turbofan offers a considerable improvement over the current 28,500 lbf Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 turbofan in the Block 50 and the 28,984 lbf F110-GE-129 turbofan (all figures in afterburner or military power). It is important to note F110-GE-132 is not currently offered as part of the F-16V configuration (Dorr, 2012). The addition of the GE-132 would synergize with the incorporation of both "power-by-wire", which removes the mechanical backup for a total 6% reduction in weight, and the composite materials from the F-2 which would further increase airframe weight reduction. As a result of reduced weight and increased thrust, the upgraded aircraft would have a significantly higher thrust to weight ratio over the current F-16 Block 50/52+ aircraft.
Image 8: Composite wing from an F-2. From Defense Industry Daily: "In the end, the F-2 delivered on its techno-industrial promises. Mitsubishi’s heavy use of graphite epoxy and co-cured composite technology for the wings encountered some teething problems, but proved to be a leading-edge use of a technology that provides weight savings, improved range, and some stealth benefits. This technology was then transferred back to America, as part of the program’s industrial partnership."
Improvements to Sensors
Image 9: FLIR in F-16 AFTI. Image retrieved via F-16.net
Lockheed Martin has been diligent about consistently upgrading the F-16's internal avionics with its most recent F-16 variants. The incorporation of either Northrup Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) or Raytheon's Advanced Combat Radar (RACR) into the F-16V grants greatly increased situational awareness and beyond visual range (bvr) combat capabilities. Currently the United States enjoys nearly a ten year lead over its international competitors in the field of fighter mounted AESA. However, by the 2020s other low-end fighter aircraft will incorporate AESAs such as the Eurofighter, Mig-35, Gripen Next Generation (NG), etc. In order for the F-16 to remain competitive, the inclusion of an internally mounted infrared search and track (IRST) system is necessary. Lockheed Martin has developed an externally pod mounted IRST system for the F-16 called "IRST". While this is a relatively low cost and efficient means of adding IRST capabilities to older existing airframes, externally mounted pods generally diminish aerodynamic performance. Lockheed might be able to use the incorporation of the AN/ASQ-28 IFTS on the F-16E/F Block 60 as a starting point for incorporating an internally mounted IRST on the F-16.
The objective of a comprehensive upgrade program for the F-16 is to provide enough new capabilities to the F-16 airframe as to make the aircraft viable against the Gripen NG and new super maneuverable Russian fourth generation fighter aircraft. At a minimum, this would entail the inclusion composite materials to reduce weight and provide some rcs reduction, "power-by-wire" for additional weight reductions, the addition of a more powerful engine such as the F110-GE-132, a low-observable weapon pod, and incorporation of an internally mounted IRST system. The research and development time for many of these improvements would be reduced as Lockheed Martin has already researched the basis for these improvements in past F-16 technology demonstrator programs during the 1990s to early 2000s. Furthermore, many of these features are incorporated in existing operational aircraft (either the J-2 or F-16E/F Block 60).
Capitalizing on Saab's Weaknesses
- Finite production capacity and significant additional R&D is required for Gripen NG
- Limited training and logistics support from Saab
- Sweden's comparatively limited international clout vs. the United States
"'This is not just an upgrade of the existing Gripen; it is a complete redesign, and essentially a new aircraft. Because of the small number to be built, the R&D costs per unit are likely to be very high.' The upgraded Gripen would grow in length from 14.1 to 14.9 meters, it would have a slightly wider wingspan, and its maximum takeoff weight would increase from 14 to 16.5 tons. The number of onboard weapon stations would rise from eight to 10, engine power would increase by 22 percent, and range would expand from 3,500 to 4,075 kilometers." - Gerard O'Dwyer, 2012
Saab's proposal to build a fighter pilot school at Air Force Base Overberg South Africa has been denied by the South African Government (Martin, 2013). This facility would have provided much needed training and logistic support to current Gripen users. Saab is in the process of finding a new site for its fighter pilot school but it will likely not be completed for several years. Meanwhile, the United States Air Force conducts training exercises with other nations that operate the F-16 on a routine basis e.g. a detachment of USAF F-16's from the 176th Fighter Squadron (FS) was recently deployed to Poland for training exercises.
Limitations of Analysis
Image 11: Lockheed Martin Fort Worth F-16 production facility. Image Credit: Kenny Roberts
Before concluding, its worth mentioning the limits of the analysis above. While the analysis above emphasizes the volume of orders within the low-end fighter market, it does not address aggregate value of high-end vs low-end fighter sales. One of the basic tenants of economics is the assumption that firms act in a profit maximizing manner. For example, despite the larger volume of aircraft sold in the low-end market, the few sales of high-end aircraft can provide a disproportionately large source of revenue when compared to even the largest sales of low-end aircraft. For example, Boeing was recently awarded a massive $29.4 billion dollar contract for 84 new F-15SA strike eagles and 68 upgrade kits for Saudi Arabia's current strike F-15S eagle fleet. In comparison, the largest F-16 sale in recent years, the UAE purchase of 80 new F-16E/F Block 60 aircraft, was valued at only $6.4 billion. It could be that Lockheed Martin has already judged marginal benefit, in terms of continued or increased F-16 sales as a result of more than piecemeal upgrades to the F-16, as insufficient to justify the marginal cost of comprehensive F-16 upgrades. It is also possible that Lockheed Martin has judged the opportunity cost, in terms of resources allocated to sustaining F-16 production, to be too high at a time when it needs additional resources for the F-35 program.
However, Lockheed Martin's concern that heavily upgrading the F-16 could result diminished international interest in the F-35 is ill-founded.
"LockMart has been very discrete with marketing and upgrading this plane, because aggressively selling a very capable fourth generation fighter at $45 million could easily annoy the Air Force and jeopardize international F-35 sales too. It even moved the F-16 production line to a much smaller and less prominent building. The worst enemy of The Best is The Good Enough." - Richard Aboulafia, 2012
So long as the upgrades provide enough new capability to nations as to make the F-16 comparable to its 4.5 generation counterparts, its low price and the diplomatic ties with the United States will once again make the F-16 very attractive to low-end customers. It is plausible that Lockheed doesn't need to fully match the Gripen NG from a capabilities standpoint due to the variable of strengthening diplomatic ties with the US as discussed in Part I, but as of now the F-16 is sufficiently behind its counterparts as to diminish the effectiveness diplomatic ties variable. In the high-end market, the upgraded F-16 will not offer enough new capability to justify foregoing the fifth generation F-35. The F-X III fighter competition in South Korea serves as an example of a high-end fighter market customer chose the F-35 over a cheaper heavily upgraded 4.5 generation alternative, Boeing's F-15SE "Silent Eagle". In many respects the F-15SE is similar to the upgraded F-16. Thus, Lockheed Martin can effectively meet demand from both markets without fear of damaging its own prospects in the high-end market with the F-35 by appropriately upgrading and marketing the F-16.
Image 12: F-16 near Fort Worth. Image Credit: Code One Magazine
It is in Lockheed Martin's best interests to aggressively market upgraded variants of the F-16 to countries within the low-end fighter market such that it can retain the high-end market with the F-35 and the low-end market with the F-16. This is not a call to replace the F-35, rather Lockheed Martin should seek to meet the demands of both the low-end and high-end as to not loose out on potential revenue. By aggressively marketing a heavily upgraded F-16, Lockheed Martin can increase sales without serious concern that interest in the F-35 would be diminished, the low-end and high-end fighter market largely represent two separate markets blocks of international consumers.
Author's Note: Next article will be: "The Uncertain Future of America's Raptors". Release date is yet to be determined, maybe next week?
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Image 13: Japanese J-2.