(Washington, D.C.) The Air Force is giving its 1970s-era F-16 fighter F-35 technology as part of a massive fleet-wide overhaul intended to improve targeting, attack precision and computer systems -- to extend the fighter’s combat life all the way into the 2040s.
It might be tough to imagine that today’s Air Force F-16 dates back as far as the 1970s, a circumstance which might lead some to wonder how the combat aircraft has sustained its combat relevance and performance capacity into the dynamic threat environment of the 2020s.
F-16 Service Life Extension Program
The answer is actually quite extensive and goes back many years to the inception and preservation of an F-16 Service Life Extension Program which upgraded the upper wing skin and fittings, adjusted the bulkhead and canopy and gave the aircraft an F-35 Active Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA).
Active Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA)
With AESA, the F-16 incorporated an entirely new ability to find, detect and track enemy threats at much greater ranges. The aim of the SLEP was to extend the flight time of F-16s from roughly six-to-seven thousand flight hours to 8,000 or more flight hours. On top of that, the service’s confidence in the upgrades have led to plan to have the F-16 fly all the way out to 12,000 hours.
The AESA radar, which Lockheed developers say can track up to 20-targets at one time, is a massive upgrade beyond the F-16s previous mechanically-scanned radar. By virtue of its ability to track multiple targets, the AESA radar can scan in a 360-degree sphere to include horizontal, vertical and diagonal vectors.
Modernized Cockpit Avionics
Not surprisingly, the F-16 has also in recent years received new cockpit avionics to include moving map displays, video in the cockpit. digital graphics screens and new target tracking systems.
Upgraded F-16s also uses a high degree of increased on-board automation to free up pilot focus and workload. By automatically performing a range of important procedural functions independently, a pilot is then freed up to focus more intently on other mission critical tasks.
Alongside the Air Force SLEP, Lockheed Martin has also been building a new F-16v variant, which continues to inspire allied interest around the globe. The F-16v also uses new computers and software as well as a high-definition cockpit display. The “v” model also adds a new data bus, electronic warfare suite, missile warning sensor and helmet mounted cueing system.
This upgraded F-16v technical foundation provided the technical starting point for Lockheed’s next-generation F-16 specifically built for India called the F-21.
F-21 with IRST Technology
Not only does the F-21 incorporate AESA, but the jet also integrates a high-tech, next-generation targeting system called Infrared Search and Track (IRST) technology. IRST, which is used extensively in F/A-18 Super Hornets, is a passive, long-range sensor that searches for and detects infrared emissions.
Much like the AESA, the IRST can track multiple targets at once and operate in an electromagnetic warfare environment. As a passive, long-range sensor able to provide air-to-air targeting, IRST introduces new combat variables for the F-16.
In effect, while there are ultimately limits to how much an older aircraft can be upgraded, today’s F-16 is almost an entirely different airplane apart from keeping its basic airframe configuration.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.