‘Foreign’ F-16s to receive a cutting-edge multiple EW package

A cutting-edge electronic warfare [EW] apparatus, primed to endow F-16 fighters with the capacity to simultaneously detect multiple foes, is anticipated to be ready for manufacture in the culmination of 2025. 

Jordan asked for 16 F-16 Block 70 fighters and 21 GE engines
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Lockheed Martin’s international F-16 Block 70/72 fighter jet clients will be equipped with the Viper Shield, an entirely digital radar warning receiver, being constructed by L3Harris to pick up the opposition’s radio signals. 

As communicated by Anna Gragosian, the company’s director of business development, this innovative electronic warfare [EW] package is set to resolve the drawbacks of its analog counterpart, which include limitations like detection of a single signal at a time. The digital architecture underpinning the Viper Shield will facilitate the simultaneous detection of multiple signals, a feat unattainable in the analog mode. 

'Foreign' F-16s will receive an improved multiple EW package
Photo credit: L3Harris

L3Harris has bagged a contract to fabricate 166 Viper Shield systems for the latest Block 70/72 aircraft, intended for “five international clients,” as Gragosian revealed. 

“The system is meticulously engineered to identify sophisticated radar systems, offer situational awareness, and guarantee self-defense via electronic countermeasures. Armed with a digital receiver and transmission channels, it is perfectly geared to tackle contemporary threats,” she concluded.

The situation

The commencement of the F-16 Block 70/72’s serial production officially kicked off almost two years back. As a consequence of this timeline, the planes that have successfully completed the assembly process aren’t equipped with the latest EW software package, given that the contract only came into effect this year. 

Take Bahrain as a case in point, where the first F-16 Block 70 fighter they received included the older EW system. Over the span of the forthcoming two years, the aircraft rolling out of the assembly line will be similarly equipped. However, an upgrade is anticipated post-2025 with the installation of the Viper Shield. 

Nonetheless, the condition is quite different when considering the 139 fighter jets commissioned by Taiwan. As reported by Defense One, these planes are currently undergoing an upgrade to incorporate not only the Viper Shield but also Northrup Grumman’s innovative AESA radar. 

F-16's smaller nose cone allows the Su-35 to blind Viper's radar
Photo by Staff Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan

This seemingly “unequal” distribution of integration is probably guided by the potential for a conflict between Taiwan and China, a situation likely to entangle the US, even if tangentially so. However, L3Harris has refrained from commenting on the political ramifications, indicating their contractual obligations with the US government concerning the Taiwanese F-16s. They suggest that the decisions regarding the order of integration fall squarely within the purview of the US government, as per L3Harris officials.

USAF F-16s

The incorporation of the Viper Shield will be noticeably absent from the upgrading process of domestically used F-16s that form part of the US defense constitution. Instead, a distinctive system constructed by Northrup Grumman is slated for integration, with such an event projected to commence in the coming year. 

The announcement for the contract regarding the fabrication of Northrup Grumman’s Integrated Viper Electronic Warfare Suite [IVEWS] surfaced in the initial six months of 2023. The corresponding institution hinted then [circa March] about plans to initiate system trials within the subsequent 18 months to facilitate embracing the system into several domestic F-16 combat aircraft. 

The introduction of the latest F-16 Electronic Warfare [EW] suite into the airborne fleet is so far successful, according to testimonies from the Air Force. This follows the successful combination with the aircraft’s novel AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar [SABR] issued by Northrop Grumman. 

The newly introduced F-16 EW suite adopts an open system, ultra-wideband architecture that offers a substantial instantaneous bandwidth necessary for modern threat neutralization, according to the Northrop Grumman institution. This innovative system taps from the shared technology base with the AC/MC-130J Radio Frequency Countermeasures Program and Northrop Grumman’s AN/APR-39 radar warning receivers. 

The role of IVEWS in augmenting the security of U.S. F-16 operators is pivotal, especially when carrying out mission assignments within contested environments, as noted by Maj. Charles Pritchard, chief of electronic warfare integration in the AFMC’s Fighter and Advanced Aircraft Directorate. This was expressed in an AFMC official statement. 

According to projections, IVEWS paves the avenue for future expansions for the F-16. This includes concepts such as a fiber optic towed decoy, prevalent adoption of adaptive and cognitive processing, and compliance with Open System Architecture.

Easier to upgrade

The Viper Shield operates with fewer essential elements than its elder Electronic Warfare [EW] counterparts. This translates to a more compact size, a weight reduction, and an extended duration between system breakdowns, which enables cost-cutting over the system’s lifetime. 

This system’s modular construction allows for the quick exchange of Line Replaceable Units [LRUs] directly in the field. With an eye on the future, the design provides space for further expansions and improvements. Its 3U COTS technology paired with a software-driven architecture eases the process of future updates. This feature means that those in combat can readily update with new capabilities and technologies without breaking the bank, making obsolescence a thing of the past.

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