- Rumours continue to circulate suggesting that the USAF is to cancel its CAPES F-16 AESA/avionics upgrade
- The effects of such a decision will be keenly felt in Southeast Asia, where Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore are all looking to modernise their own F-16s with an AESA-based upgrade
The story of which industry team will capture the lion's share of the business to upgrade the Lockheed Martin F-16 has taken a new turn, with a decision by Singapore potentially now a 'game winner', while rumours continue to circulate about the US Air Force's (USAF's) future plans for modernising its own F-16 fleet.
The USAF's Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) programme was originally intended to involve 300 US F-16 aircraft, all of which would be upgraded with Northrop Grumman's Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) and a set of other onboard systems integrated by Lockheed Martin, the aircraft's original manufacturer.
Both the SABR and its competitor, the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), are active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars designed to replace the F-16's existing Northrop Grumman AN/APG-68 mechanically steered array (MSA) radar set. For its proposed upgrade Raytheon is paired with BAE Systems, which performs the role of integrator and supplier for a new set of cockpit displays, an electronic warfare suite, and a main mission computer.
Taiwan (the Republic of China - ROC) had elected to join the USAF in a joint effort focused on the SABR radar, with Lockheed Martin as the programme integrator, and would have 146 of its aircraft upgraded with this package. The island nation is one of the three near-term export customers for an F-16 modernisation, along with South Korea, with 130 F-16s to be modernised, and Singapore, which is looking to modernise between 60 and 70 of the type.
Taiwan elected to go with the same upgrade configuration as the USAF on the basis that the programme's non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs would be amortised over a total of 446 aircraft. However, there have been rumours for months now that on 4 March the USAF could zero out budgeting for the CAPES upgrade in its 2015 budget plan in an effort to maintain current funding levels for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
Officials from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman stated at the Singapore Airshow this month that there would be no impact on the unit cost if the USAF withdrew from CAPES. The head of LM Aeronautics, Orlando Carvalho, stated that almost every country contemplating an F-16 upgrade "is doing something unique", which makes the question of if or when the USAF decides to go forward with CAPES a non-issue.
However, an industry source who spoke with IHS Jane's claimed that the reason there would be no appreciable impact on the unit cost for the upgrade offered to Taiwan if the USAF ditched CAPES is because "in reality the Taiwanese were always paying for the entire NRE; they just do not know it". The source further claimed that Taiwan will end up not only paying the full NRE costs of the SABR plus the Lockheed Martin upgrade, but that, "since SABR was never productionised and has only ever existed as a few prototypes, Taiwan will also pay for the creation of the entire SABR production line and the establishment of a full raft of suppliers to support that effort".
These and other uncertainties led South Korea to instead bid its F-16 upgrade competitively, which resulted in its selection of the combination of RACR and BAE Systems, which has a cost structure independent of the USAF programme. Raytheon executives such as Jim Hvizd, vice-president for international strategy and business development, state that the approach of their company was to minimise the cost of the upgrade by making the RACR a production-standard design from day one that is piggy-backed on the 'hot' production lines of the company's other AESA models. This makes the Raytheon offer "orders of magnitude cheaper" than the rival package from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, Raytheon officials claim.
Singapore, meanwhile, has now become an effective tie-breaker as to which of the teams will win the most F-16 upgrade business, with its selection seen as potentially pivotal because of the reputation the island state has of being a smart buyer. Industry sources state that Singapore had originally been predisposed to select the Lockheed Martin/Northrop Grumman package and the SABR radar, but one source told IHS Jane's that "if the USAF or the ROC were to pull out of the effort, the uncertainties that this creates might cause them [Singapore] to re-evaluate their options".
Raytheon representatives point out that there would be certain synergies that Singapore would take advantage of by selecting RACR. "Their current fleet of 25 F-15SG fighter aircraft are fitted with the Raytheon AN/APG-63(V)3 AESA, so incorporating RACR into their F-16 gives them a level of commonality with some unique advantages," noted one Raytheon official.