Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Taiwan’s F-16 Upgrade

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Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks: Taiwan’s F-16 Upgrade

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.

Northrop Grumman may have the historical edge in the F-16 contest: the AN/APG-80 that is fitted to the United Arab Emirates’ F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcons is the basis for the SABR, and Northrop has also worked with Lockheed Martin on the F-22 and F-35. Raytheon has tended to partner with Boeing in fighter programs – the RACR is based on the F/A-18’s AN/APG-79 radar, although the RACR has been flown on a USAF F-16 test bed.

U.S.-Taiwan Business Council chairman Rupert Hammond-Chambers said Lockheed Martin is expected to make a decision on which radar to choose sometime in 2013, and added that “both parties feel that they’re going to get a fair shout either way” despite Lockheed Martin’s historical ties to Northrop Grumman.

Officials from both Northrop Grumman and Raytheon believe that the Taiwanese and USAF upgrades are vital for future orders – of the 4,500 F-16s that have been produced for air forces across the globe, it is estimated that about 600 early-block aircraft would be suitable candidates for an AESA upgrade. That said, they are also bullish about the future of AESA radars, which are scalable and so can be fitted to platforms large (such as maritime patrol aircraft) and small (tactical UAVs).

Hammond-Chambers said “it is all hands to the pump” in Taiwan as far as the F-16 upgrade is concerned. “There’s money being paid out, an EW suite that needs to be developed, pre-ordering of components – that’s what’s in play in the next three years,” he said. “Then in the fourth quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017, the expectation is that AIDC [the local upgrade partner] and Lockheed Martin will be then ready to start pulling off 24 airframes at any one time.” Each airframe will be out of service for about 12 months.

Meanwhile, Taiwan’s seems no closer to getting 66 new F-16s than it was when the Obama administration decided in September 2011 to allow the F-16 upgrade but demurred on the new aircraft. Obama’s decision was greeted with howls of outrage by many China watchers and the Taiwan lobby in Congress. Led by Senator John Cornyn of Texas, lawmakers promised to hold Obama to the letter of the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and inserted a clause into the Fiscal Year 2013 (FY13) Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) demanding the sale. Cornyn went on to delay the appointment of Mark Lippert as the Pentagon’s top Asia official until April, when Cornyn finally let the appointment go through after receiving a letter from the White House saying it would “give consideration” to the sale.

The re-elections of Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou in January and U.S. President Barack Obama this month have likely stymied any further movement on the new-build F-16s, Hammond-Chambers believes. “With Obama’s victory, we expect the status quo,” he said. “If the C/D sale is to move forward, the Obama administration is not going to move ahead under its own steam – it’s going to require significant pressure from Congress.”

James Hardy is Asia-Pacific Editor of IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly.