With a deal on new fighters seemingly halted, Taiwan is increasing the capabilities of its existing fighter aircraft.
Taiwan's plans to upgrade its 145 Lockheed Martin F-16 combat aircraft and its on-again off-again pursuit of 66 new-build F-16C/Ds have taken a couple of interesting turns in recent months – turns entirely related to the U.S. Air Force's (USAF) own upgrade of about 300 of its newer F-16s.
The USAF upgrade program has been thrust upon it by the continuing delays to Lockheed Martin's F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was supposed to replace the F-16 (among other aircraft) but has run into numerous delays. In the meantime, the USAF's F-16s will get an upgrade – called the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) – that includes a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a new center display unit and the ALQ-213 electronic-warfare (EW) system.
This matters to Taiwan because of the Republic of China Air Force's own U.S. $5.3 billion upgrade program for its 145 F-16A/Bs, which was agreed to with Washington in September 2011. In August 2012 Taiwan signed a letter of agreement stating it would follow the USAF's radar selection, and like the USAF, it has also chosen original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Lockheed Martin to carry out the upgrades. By contrast, South Korea recently chose BAE Systems to upgrade its KF-16 fleet.
At about the same time that Taiwan agreed to follow the USAF's radar choice, the USAF was agreeing to let Lockheed Martin choose which radar to provide. This is a big deal. As I’ve noted in The Diplomat previously, one of the key developments in defense aerospace in recent years has been "the growth of sub-system renewal of avionics, sensors, cockpit displays and fire control radars" over brand new aircraft. Giving older F-16s an AESA fire control radar is one such upgrade and is currently a hotly contested battle between Northrop Grumman, which is offering its Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), and Raytheon, which has developed its Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR). Both are developed from radars already in service with the USAF or other air forces and both provide a major lift in combat capabilities for ageing aircraft.
Put simply, AESA radars allow modern multirole fighter aircraft to multitask: they can select multiple air and ground targets, detect multiple threats, and offer an "up to three-fold increase in performance together with a ten-fold increase in reliability," according to company officials. They also offer the possibility of an integrated radar/EW capability that could include digital radar warning, advanced electro-optical imaging and the use of radar as a communication tool. The step up is comparable to trading in a late 1990s Nokia for an iPhone.
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