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AESA Radar Launches F-16 Into Next Generation of Air Power

  • Published
  • By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Sarah M. McClanahan
  • Air National Guard

More than 70 F-16 Fighting Falcons across 12 Air National Guard units are now flying with the new active electronically scanned array, (AESA) radar that will allow pilots to detect, target, identify, and engage across a spectrum of threats at longer ranges and react with greater precision.

The AESA reinforces the viability of the F-16 to execute its homeland defense mission while remaining ahead of near-peer threats.

“[With the F-16’s previous APG-68 fire control radar], I had the ability to target up to two tracks, that’s it,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Trujillo, commander of the District of Columbia Air National Guard’s 113th Aerospace Control Alert Detachment, the unit responsible for the air defense of the national capital region. “At that point, my radar is completely saturated and has no more bandwidth. With the AESA radar, [without getting into] specific numbers, I can target more things than I can shoot.”

Air National Guard and defense industry leaders and distinguished visitors commemorated this addition to the F-16’s arsenal of equipment recently in a ceremony held on Joint Base Andrews, Maryland. The group gathered in front of an AESA-equipped F-16 assigned to the DCANG’s 113th Wing, the first unit in the Air Force to receive this upgraded capability.

“This has not been without a lot of labor, without a lot of advocacy, and without a lot of people saying ‘I don't have another dollar to spend on an old F-16,’” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh, Air National Guard director, who served as an F-16 pilot in both the regular Air Force and ANG.

The provisioning of the AESA radar in the F-16 legacy fleet was a result of the combined effort of the defense industry, Congress, the U.S. Air Force, and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The implementation of this radar technology, which complements the capabilities of 5th generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22, revitalizes legacy aircraft and cost-effectively integrates them into the current generation of assets.

“National defense is really a team sport,” said Lt. Gen. Marc H. Sasseville, National Guard Bureau vice chief. “It's industry. It’s the operators. It’s the hill. It’s good Americans all pitching in to make stuff happen.”

Since the first F-16 upgrade with the AESA radar in January 2020, the 113th Wing has leveraged its effectiveness for its missions, including the defense of the NCR.

“What really makes us different here is our alert mission and how important it is,” said Trujillo. “This is the seat of government and we're kind of the fence posts that everyone relies on as the benchmark for the mission.”

Responding to more than 7,000 events since 9/11, the 113th ACA is the most active alert fighter air defense unit in the Department of Defense. It also possesses the perfect mission to showcase the AESA radar’s capabilities.

“[We use] radars and different frequency bands … to build as robust of a 3-D picture as possible,” said Trujillo. “You want that full gamut of the spectrum to make sure that you're not missing anything.”

Emerging threats are among the biggest reasons for provisioning the AESA radar. The F-16’s previous APG-68 fire control radar had near-zero capability against cruise missiles, which means the AESA radar provides new capabilities for the legacy aircraft, explained Trujillo.

“If money wasn't a factor, we’d outfit every one of the airplanes with it just based on the fact that it is that great of a capability and is that much more reliable,” said Trujillo.

These capabilities allow the ANG to face near-peer adversaries in today’s contested battlespace as current and future threats race to dominate the air domain.

“You have to realize there are peer adversaries who are developing capabilities and testing us all the time,” said Maj. Gen. Jon S. Safstrom, ANG assistant to the Continental United States North American Aerospace Defense Command Region and First Air Force commander. “It's in our national defense strategy that we have to focus on the homeland and AESA provides that capability.”

The acquisition of the AESA radar stands as a testament to the combined effort to assure the national security needs of the United States, Loh said.

“When we look at the National Guard as a foundation for national security, national defense, we truly do mean that it’s in our heart and it’s across the 54,” he said.

The AESA radar’s up-to-date set of capabilities modernizes and recapitalizes the ANG’s legacy fleet of F-16s, marking its arrival into the next generation of combat and air power.