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.

But the program to develop the F-35 has been repeatedly delayed and now the
 jet won't be ready for at least a couple more years. Between now and then, 
the F-16s have to be maintained and adapted to fit the modern fighting
 environment. If not, our soldiers could be at a serious technological
 disadvantage when engaging the enemy.

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

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

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
 taxpayer dollars.

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.