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As Defense budgets around the world have been squeezed and with few new platforms in production, A&D companies are looking to upgrade current equipment as a major market opportunity. These upgrades are friendly to military budgets as they provide improved capabilities at much lower costs than new platforms. They also provide new capabilities much faster than developing new platforms that take years to design and produce.
Microwave Journal covered this trend in upgrading Automatic Test Equipment (ATE) in the US in its March 2012 issue cover story. It stated that the DoD spent over $50 billion on ATS procurement between 1980 and 1992. During this period, the standard practice was to develop a single ATS to support a single weapon system, leading to a proliferation of unique and hard to maintain test systems. The ATE upgrading started in the 1994 under US government directives and programs. It is still underway in its second phase and many companies have implemented new emulation software and modular hardware to replacement obsolete ATS without changing their function in any way. Rohde and Schwarz followed up this article with more information about emulation solutions in an August 2012 article. They have been very aggressive in this market as a big area of opportunity and Aeroflex recently introduced their Synthetic ATS in a box that will also compete in this market and others.
More than 4,500 F-16s have been built since the 1970s and more than 20 countries fly the aircraft according to Defense News. This represents the largest installed base of fighter aircraft in the world making it the biggest market for upgrades globally. The U.S. Air Force plans to upgrade and extend the life of 300 F-16s to protect the service in case the F-35 experiences more delays in the course of its development/production. Air Force officials have chosen Block 40, 42, 50 and 52 F-16C/Ds to receive the upgrades in the fleet. The F-16’s will receive a new AESA radar, a new Terma ALQ-213 electronic warfare system, an integrated broadcast system (IBS) and a center display unit (CDU), according to Dave Majumdar (Flight Global) as stated in a recent DefenseTech article. The article says that Lockheed Martin will receive a sole source contract to provide the upgrades. Other defense companies have taken notice of the need to upgrade the F-16 as international air force leaders expect the F-16 to fly for decades to come.
Northrop Grumman is one of those other companies and already supplying AESA radar upgrades to the F-16 platform. They offer and easy upgrade kit to install their Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) AESA fire control radar system. The system requires no structural changes to the airframe. The field retrofit system is easily installed by removing the old radar system and replacing the radar unit and electronic boxes with preconfigured SABR AESA units. Below is a video demonstrating the replacement process.
According to Defense News, Boeing sees work turning F-16 fighters into pilotless target drones as an avenue to boost its presence in the United States and international Falcon support and upgrade market. The company thinks this is a billion dollar market and will help diversify their support business beyond Boeing built aircraft. This will get them into the market in doing other upgrades as well with the 300 F-16’s being upgraded. The Air Force currently flies unmanned F-4 Phantoms as full-scale aerial targets. The newer QF-16 will be better representatives of today’s types of modern aircraft that are threats to the US. The QF-16s will use the existing ground systems used by the QF-4 targets.
Boeing already supports and upgrades C-130 cargo aircraft and A-10 attack planes so it is proving it can work with aircraft they did not originally manufacture. They will go after the F-16 upgrades in other countries since the global market is very large.
Raytheon Co. has been awarded its second contract from Boeing Co. for low-rate initial production (LRIP) of active electronically scanned array radar systems for the U.S. Air Force F-15E Radar Modernization Program. Raytheon's APG-82(V)1 AESA radar can simultaneously detect, identify and track multiple air and surface targets at longer ranges than the APG-70 radar it replaces like other AESA upgrades. The system offers a substantial improvement in reliability and reduces Air Force maintenance costs so it fits the model of updating current platforms with lower costs.
These are just some of the latest examples of military upgrades and there will be more to come in the near future. Microwave companies should be looking at how they can add new functionality and capabilities to current platforms and participate in these upgrade programs.