It may be a 1980s-era fourth-generation fighter jet, yet the Air Force F-16 will fly for years into the future with some newly-integrated technologies from the F-35 stealth fighter jet. These upgrades are part of an ongoing effort to upgrade and sustain the decades-old warplane with new systems to fly well into the 2040s.
The upgrades include radar, targeting, precision attack technology and new computer systems, all key elements of an F-16 fleet-wide overhaul.
A fleet of F-16s are now getting new F-35 Active Electronically Scanned radar, and other upgrades including upper wing skin and fittings, upper and lower bulkheads, and canopy sill longeron. The effort, called a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP), is already underway and the Low Rate Initial Production has now been in process for several years, Air Force officials explain. F-16s, Air Force officials say, were originally intended to fly for up to 8,000 hours, a service duration which is now being extended all the way to 12,000 hours, an adjustment made possible by the scope and sophistication of the upgrades.
The SLEP program, Air Force and Lockheed developers explain, consists of twelve structural modifications and an existing Time Compliance Technical Order. The Air Force is upgrading 372 F-16 aircraft from the existing mechanically scanned radar (APG-68) to an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) (APG-83). Several years ago, earlier in the development of the Air Force’s F-16 SLEP program, service officials also told The National Interest that the upgrades provide greater bandwidth, speed and agility which improve targeting possibilities more quickly and at longer ranges. At this time, a Lockheed developer told The National Interest that the F-16s new AESA radar can track up to twenty targets at one time. The AESA radar, the Lockheed official explained, helps F-16 pilots see a wide area laterally, horizontally, diagonally and vertically. Upgraded F-16s have also been getting a new targeting system and sniper pod along with clearer graphics and video into the cockpit.
New sensing dimensions and radar targeting scope, such as that made possible by an F-35-like AESA, brings an almost fifth-generation like capability to “see” and “destroy” targets at much further, and therefore much safer, standoff ranges. This “sensing” technical ability, now more manifest in upgraded F-16s, is precisely why the F-35 is considered superior as it can draw upon new generations of computer technology and long-range, high-fidelity sensing systems to greatly impact any kind of tactical equation. Arguably, a new generation of computing, when merged with unprecedented levels of sensing and long-range targeting technology, is what makes fifth-generation aircraft so different from fourth-generation warplanes. Long range precision targeting, should it create a stand-off distance enabled overmatch against an adversary, could arguably help compensate for a lack of stealth properties in some respects, as it could allow an aircraft to strike, or at least alert friendly forces, from a much less vulnerable position.
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.