Smaller, Cheaper, Advanced Radars for F-16

Feb 6, 2009
By David A. Fulghum

Building a cheaper, active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar for the F-16 is the next big program in the airborne radar world.

Raytheon emerged early with development of an array that the company contends can transmit huge imagery files, as well as fire bursts of microwaves into enemy sensors to jam and otherwise confuse them.

Now Northrop Grumman is competing with a low-cost design — spun off the F-35 APG-81 radar — that has just concluded its first set of flight demonstrations. The Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) is certain to have electronic surveillance, electronic attack and communications capabilities as well, but company officials will not discuss and EW/EA capability. They say only that the customers will be able to pick the capabilities they want on the new radars, and that it is designed to support “future weapons and tactics” that would include the introduction of non-kinetic weaponry and active electronic warfare. An earlier AESA design, the APG-80, equips the F-16C/Ds of the United Arab Emirates.

The 30-pound SABR is designed initially to fit the F-16 with no structure, power or cooling modifications and at a price significantly below current AESA radars, according to Arlene Camp, director of Advanced F-16 Programs. First flight in an F-16 is slated for late 2009, she says.

“Customers are looking for revolutionary enhancements” to their F-16 radars, at affordable upfront and life-cycle costs, Camp says.

However, the full-performance, fire-control AESA radar is scalable to fit other aircraft platforms and missions, says John Johnson, Northrop’s vice president and general manager of the aerospace systems division. That leaves the door open to adapting the radar to foreign-designed aircraft and a broader export market.

Both Raytheon and Northrop are pursuing Falcon-sized radar designs because the F-16 accounts for a worldwide fleet of more than 4,400 aircraft in 25 countries that could choose to upgrade their radars — and thereby enter the world of network-centric warfare. Northrop’s Camp says SABR retrofits should take less than a day.

While not overtly advertised, the new F-16 radars will at least double the range of mechanically scanned radar. Range results from a combination of power and antenna size, both of which are restricted by the F-16’s single engine and small size. But their ranges are expected to be around 90 miles for the F-16.

Northrop has been the original equipment manufacturer of the F-16 radar since its production in 1976. The company’s AN/APG-80 AESA radar has been operating on Block 60 F-16s internationally since 2005.

Photo: USAF

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