Soon, the Air Force will start a competition to buy new AESA radars for at least 350 of its older F-16 fighters. The Pentagon had originally committed to replacing the F-16s entirely with a brand new kind of aircraft called the "F-35 Joint Strike Fighter." These new jets were expected to have advanced radars already built-in.
And one of the most important upgrades to the F-16 is installing the AESA. These new units represent a significant improvement over existing onboard radar systems.
The AESA can detect objects much farther away than its predecessors. It also better integrates with newer weapons systems and can survive the scrum of electronic warfare. The AESA has been modified specifically to fit a relatively light, agile fighter plane.
AESA radars are already in service on Navy F/A-18s and Air Force F-15s and F-22s. They've proven to provide a huge pay-off in terms of combat functionality.
The AESA upgrade is also particularly important given the Pentagon's newfound focus on the Asia-Pacific region. Both President Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta have recently said that this region is now a top military priority -- and for good reason.
North Korea has a missile-happy dictatorship. China has poured huge resources into military spending over the last 15 years and has growing ambitions in the region. AESA-equipped F-16s are crucial to keep up with China's fast-growing military capabilities.
Without the new AESA radar, F-16s will be much less useful in years ahead.
These jets won't be well equipped to deal with the most prominent military
threats in the Asia-Pacific region. American pilots will be at a distinct
disadvantage as they wait for the F-35 to finally get finished. So
installing these AESA upgrades now is crucial.
Of course, the counterweight to the AESA initiative is the pressure to slim Pentagon spending. Balancing new military programs with budget-cuts is hard.
There's certainly a tendency toward waste in defense programs. And waste often starts when requirements spiral out of control.
So it's certainly sensible for the Pentagon to make decisions about new acquisitions, R&D, and weapons system upgrades with an unrelenting focus on getting the best value for its dollars. But there are vital programs that shouldn't be compromised. And the AESA upgrade project is one of them -- it should be funded in full.
However, there are precautions that the Pentagon should take during the AESA bidding process to ensure taxpayers are (literally) getting the most bang for their buck. Just because the AESA upgrade is valuable doesn't mean that it should go scrutiny-free.
This summer, the Pentagon will kick off the AESA bidding competition. It will be between two private contractors -- Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.
This competition should be focused on procuring only what is absolutely essential to keeping the F-16 relevant. The military should be getting the best possible price for the upgrades. If a contractor starts pushing for a gold-plated solution -- offering to add many additional functionalities to the F-16 for a much higher price -- they should lose. Once the AESA program is up and running, military officials need to avoid the temptation to impose any hasty budget reductions. And if the automatic reductions in defense spending scheduled by last year's budget stand-off are in fact initiated, vital programs like the F-16 radar upgrade should be preserved.
Defense Secretary Panetta had it right when he recently said that United
States shouldn't have to choose "between our national security and our
fiscal responsibility." In the case of the F-16 AESA upgrade, our military
can dramatically improve American air capabilities while also conserving
Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research, a public-policy research organization which has led projects for the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and several Fortune 500 firms, including BAE Systems, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. The radar upgrade referred to in this piece is still in the early competition phase, so no manufacturer has been selected.