Key point: The F-16 is a good plane that is getting an upgraded radar. Will it really revolutionize what this fighter can do?
The agile F-16 Fighting Falcon is the most numerous jet in military service today—and boasts a superb combat record. But the 40-year old single-engine fighter—planned to remain in U.S. military service through 2048—will need to evolve to keep its edge in a world where stealth fighters, long-range missiles, and newer 4.5-generation fighters with more powerful sensors are proliferating.
This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.
A major step towards that evolution occurred on January 9 when a facility in Baltimore completed installation of powerful new AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radars (SABR) to fit inside the nosecones of 72 National Guard F-16Cs and Ds. (See photos here.)
The APG-83 is 85 percent based on the APG-81 radar installed in brand-new F-35 stealth fighters, but scaled down for affordability and compatibility with the F-16.
Unlike the APG-68 pulse-doppler radars being replaced, the SABR is an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar boasting superior resolution, jam resistance and stealth versus adversary radars. It has a maximum theoretical range of 230 miles (up from 184 miles), and can also perform wide-area surface scans.
The U.S. Air Force has already ordered at least 372 more APG-83s for $1 billion ($2.7 million each) to upgrade additional F-16 squadrons. The new radars will also be installed on F-16s in Bahrain, Greece, Indonesia, Korea, Morocco, Singapore, and especially Taiwan, and have been proposed for installation on B-1 and B-52 bombers and FA-18C/D Hornet fighters.
The Cruise Missile Threat
As air battles have historically been won by the side that detects and engages its opponent first, the radars will significantly improve an F-16’s lethality and survivability versus cutting-edge 4.5-generation fighters like the Su-35 and J-11D that boast their own powerful sensors.
But when the U.S. military’s Northern Command issued a Joint Emergent Operational Need for the radars, it had a specific threat in mind: long-range land-attack cruise missiles approaching via an Arctic vector.
The U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars devising defenses against ballistic missiles, which can arc across intercontinental distances at unthinkably high speeds.
Low-flying land-attack cruise missiles, by comparison, are much slower than ballistic missiles, and usually require an airplane or vessel to get them within range to strike targets in North America.
But cruise missiles are capable of evasive maneuvers and only susceptible to detection at much shorter ranges than ballistic missiles due to their smaller radar signature and ability to mask themselves with the curvature of the earth from long-range radars.
Slow, low-flying combat or kamikaze drones also pose similar detection problems to those of cruise missiles, though currently only as tactical or regional-range weapons.
A dramatic illustration of the “low and slow” threat came in the summer of 2019 when Iranian kamikaze drones and surface-skimming cruise missiles penetrated Saudi air defenses to strike two oil fields, briefly crippling the kingdom’s oil production.
However, the Northern command’s request for the APG-83 radar was instead spurred by fears of strategic attacks on North America—particularly due to Russia’s development of the air-launched Kh-101 cruise missile, which reportedly has a range in the ballpark of 3,000 miles and can be carried by long-range Tu-95MS turboprop bombers, supersonic Tu-160 and Tu-22M3M jet bombers, and even Su-34 fighter bombers. Furthermore, the Kh-101 and its Kh-102 nuclear variant are stealth missiles that only become visible on radar at short range.
A statement by Northrop Grumman hints at how the SABR would help in that context:
“The greater bandwidth, speed and agility of the APG-83 enables the F-16 to detect, track and identify a greater number of targets faster and at longer ranges. In addition, it features all-weather, high-resolution synthetic aperture radar mapping to present the pilot with a large surface image for more precise target identification and strike compared to legacy systems.”
The APG-83’s enhanced resolution and downward large-area scanning ability should thereby improve an F-16’s odds at locating and engaging low-flying drones and missiles.
Now all of these advantages aside, there seemingly remains a gap in how the F-16’s anti-cruise missile role would be operationalized—namely how would a kill chain be formed against a strategic cruise missile attack?
Even benefiting from the AN/APG-83 radar, an F-16 may still only be able to pick up a small, low-flying cruise missile when it’s dozens of miles away, not hundreds. That means that for air defense missions guarding large swathes of airspace, some other platform needs to detect the missile—or at least, the airplane or vessel launching the missile—so that a patrolling F-16 can know where to focus its search.
When the APG-83 was first requested, it was proposed to use to JLENS aerostats to form a loose early-warning network, but that program was effectively canceled in 2015. Perhaps the Air Force’s forthcoming ground-based Advanced Battlefield Management System will bring a new capability to the table.
Nonetheless, there’s little question that the SABR radar significantly improves the F-16’s effectiveness as it moves towards the final third of service life in the mid-twenty-first century, and particularly improves its potential against cruise missiles and drones, two technologies formerly reserved to Cold War superpowers that are today proliferating rapidly across the globe and playing an ever-increasing role in wars small and large.
A companion piece looks at another piece of the puzzle in the F-16’s evolution in the twenty-first century: a test of how cheap laser-guided rockets could allow Air Force fighters to shoot down large numbers of enemy missiles or drones at a much lower cost.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. This first appeared in 2019 and is being reposted due to reader interest.