I had a conversation very recently with a good friend who flies F-16s for the Air National Guard. As soon as I asked him how the jets were doing, his mood darkened a bit.

“Dude, it can be a challenge,” he said. “The systems and sensors added to the Viper over the years make us a force to be reckoned with in most of our mission sets. The only thing I don’t love is our radar. Often times the LIMFACs in our sensors create large tactical hurdles for us to overcome. It isn’t that we can’t get the job done – we can – but it makes it that much tougher to ensure mission success. We [ANG F-16 units] go out and fly in multinational exercises against countries with jets much older than ours…and they often can see us and shoot us before we can even see them. It’s embarrassing.”

Here’s the really disturbing part: Aerospace Control Alert, which is executing and maintaining air sovereignty here in the United States, is a mission owned by the Air National Guard. There are several commands flying Block 30 F-16s assigned to ACA and ALL of them are face the same problem.

“There are threats out there that would be difficult to defeat and defend against with our current sensor suite.”

From a homeland defense perspective, that is remarkable. According to the Air Force Times, First Air Force, the numbered Air Force with the task of ensuring the air sovereignty of the United States, recently filed an Urgent Operational Need request with the Air Force Requirements Council for fiscal 2015, requesting specific funding for ACA.

The 140 WG of the Colorado Air National Guard is a unit with an Aerospace Control Alert mission.
The 140 WG of the Colorado Air National Guard is a unit with an Aerospace Control Alert mission.

An Urgent Operational Need addresses capability requirements identified as impacting an ongoing or anticipated contingency operation – which ACA is both. If left unfulfilled, UONs can perpetuate capability gaps, creating a potential for loss of life or critical mission failure.

I’ll say that part again: critical mission failure. What does that look like from the ACA perspective? It’s aircraft employing weapons against the homeland, or the aircraft themselves becoming weapons. Ask the citizens of New York City and Washington, D.C. about that. I’m sure you’ll find one or two folks with an opinion.

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Here’s the bottom line: the Vipers used for homeland air defense need radar upgrades – and desperately so. The request, specifically for Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve F-16s, seeks the installation of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. This radar was part of the combat avionics program extension suite that the Air Force dropped from its fiscal 2015 and 2016 budget requests. Why? Because of our good friend the Budget Control Act–otherwise known as “Sequestration.”

Lockheed-Martin F-16Vs recently purchased by Taiwan feature the Northrop-Grumman SABR radar system, which is designed to be a field-upgradeable system as well as a new-production module. Because the radar is already installed in those jets, retro-fitting the USAF Vipers would be a pretty easy thing to do, even with the Block 30, 40/42, and 50/52 jets in the inventory. That being said, Raytheon’s RACR is also a very strong contender, and thus far, the actual sensor for the job has not been decided upon.

The 169 FW of South Carolina's Air National Guard is tasked with Aerospace Control Alert along the southeastern coast of the United States.
The 169 FW of South Carolina’s Air National Guard is tasked with Aerospace Control Alert along the southeastern coast of the United States.

Very recently, Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee, “We need to develop an AESA radar plan for our F-16s who are conducting the homeland defense mission in particular.”

The service estimates it would spend $3.2 million per aircraft to install an integrated AESA radar in the F-16, or approximately $1.2 Billion for 350 jets.

“It would be a game changer for us,” my friend told me. “With a new radar, we would be better able to defend the homeland and it also makes us a more viable option for deployed commanders downrange. An AESA suite would increase our ability to fight in, survive, and defeat the newer threat systems proliferating out there.”

For years, the answer to the modernization of fourth-generation fighters was procuring fifth-generation technology the F-22 and F-35. The downside is 4th-Gen, or “legacy” fighters, the aircraft accomplishing the overwhelming majority of combat operations underway around the world, are at a disadvantage against improved “double-digit” SAMs and advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems. Reduced buys and slower-than-expected production timelines have put our Combat Air Forces (CAF) in a bathtub of capability. Our fifth-generation fleet doesn’t have the numbers to execute major combat operations, nor will they for years to come. That leaves our aging fleet of legacy fighters to shoulder the load, yet they largely haven’t received all of the upgrades they need to make them both viable and survivable against those threat systems.

Something needs to be done…and soon.