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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

Fighter Upgrades

Originally published  July/August, 1994
by Carlo Kopp
© 1994,  2005 Carlo Kopp

Part 1

The end of the Cold War, or perhaps more accurately, World War III, has seen a rapid decline in defence expenditure in the Western democracies, not unlike the period immediately following World War II. As governments cut defence budgets, force sizes shrink and fleets are reduced, and air forces do their best to maintain their capabilities.

The partition of most of the world's industrialised nations into a Communist Bloc and Western Alliance, and the carving up of allegiances in the Third World into Western aligned or Soviet aligned, created a situation where most of the World's air forces have acquired essentially monolithic fleets of either Western or Soviet origin. This situation was encouraged during the Cold War if for no other reason than committing the party in question through supply of spares and support and operational skills.

The World of the mid 1990s is however quite different politically and we thus see several distinct trends in the management of military aircraft inventories.

The first trend is the decline of the military industrial base in the former principal Cold War players. The reduced demand for new equipment has collapsed what has been a very stable market for at least four decades, and the shock waves of dislocation are still being felt today. In the United States this has been most visible in mergers and acquisitions within the military aviation industrial base. Lockheed's acquisition of General Dynamics (Convair) Fort Worth, and Grumman's would-be merger with Martin-Marietta or Northrop are good indications of the trend, as manufacturers consolidate to hang on to the ever diminishing pie of new equipment acquisitions. The political benefits of small numbers of highly skilled defence jobs are clearly seen by Western legislators as less important than the money to be saved and thus any growth in new airframe acquisitions is unlikely in the nearer future. Issues such as casualties in any future conflicts do not appear to enter this equation.

The second clearly visible trend is the availability of considerable quantities of used but often very modern airframes, now surplus to the major powers' needs. Excluding supersonic MiG purchases for under $100k, the real issue is the availability of teen series and teenski series fighters at prices substantially below those of new airframes. From a commercial perspective, this constitutes market saturation and in effect "ruining" of the market's established price structures, as governments eager to unburden themselves dump airframes on to the market.

Shrewd players have capitalised on this situation, and the ADF's acquisition of fifteen F-111G (FB-111A) airframes was a very good move indeed. Regrettably, the number could not be greater.

The trend toward decline in new airframe sales and the growing market in second hand airframes has thus produced a growing market for overhauls and upgrades, and this could be said to be the third major trend visible in today's marketplace.

Upgrades - the Technical Issues

Maintaining an older airframe or system in service presents some interesting challenges. Airframe fatigue and mechanical wearout of propulsion, hydraulic and accessory systems are steady consumers of replacement parts, as are wearout and random failures in electronic subsystems such as radar, communications, nav gear, cockpit displays and electronic warfare subsystems.

The problem which is emerging is a shortage of spare parts. While structural and other mechanical components can be cannibalised readily from graveyard airframes or manufactured to order, due the relative simplicity of the processes involved, this is not so with electronic components, which have evolved remarkably since the sixties.

Whilst aircraft of same model designations but different production blocks may share a large fraction of common mechanical components, this tends not to be the case with electronic subsystems, which although possibly compatible at a subassembly level, are usually quite differently built at a component level. This has been severely exacerbated by a trend since the 1970s toward manufacturing custom Silicon for military equipment, rather than using military versions of commercially used chips, as well as the trend to competitively source such equipment from alternate vendors during longer production runs.

Sourcing a specific 1960s power transistor or 1970s custom integrated circuit can be extremely difficult if not quite impossible. The rate at which this technology evolves in the computer and communications industries is such that equipment is often obsoleted and discarded in half a decade, and thus even the manufacturing processes for older components are no longer available.

The US DoD has opened a facility which will manufacture custom components using current technology, to the electrical specifications of an obsoleted part, but this is relatively expensive and can render the support of a largely obsolete assembly quite expensive, particularly if the numbers involved are modest. The decision to proceed down this track is thus difficult, and turnaround times will by the nature of the process be prolonged.

The situation with Soviet equipment is even more painful, as the Russians had maintained manufacturing facilities for older technology while the aircraft were in service, rather than stockpile components. This reflected the maintenance philosophy of the Warpac, where low reliability was accepted and major overhauls of aircraft conducted quite frequently. The collapse of much of the former Soviet manufacturing base has caused something close to the collapse of the logistical infrastructure used to support the equipment. The prohibitive cost of maintaining older manufacturing processes has led in many instances to the effective disappearance of the plant in question. The Indian air force, as well as Eastern European air forces have suffered badly in terms of availability of components for types such as the MiG-29 Fulcrum.

The alternative is system level upgrading with new avionics. This process involves typically a depo level refit of the airframe, gutting parts if not all of the original avionics and replacing these with new technology, and if applicable wiring harnesses. Airframe specific idiosyncrasies are then typically resolved in software.

As with any such process, the customer can go through various levels of rebuild. The most comprehensive rebuilds will see the fitting of new engines, accessory power, electrical system, wiring, avionic subsystems, and the zero timing of the airframe by the replacement of critical structural components and load bearing skins. Whether the performance and capability of the aircraft are enhanced depends primarily on budgetary constraints. Matching an existing radar or avionic capability with new technology is typically cheaper than the original acquisition. Enhancing capability may cost more.

The payoff will be in vastly reduced maintenance costs, as the latest two generations of military avionics have seen reliability increase considerably, although it is argued by some that software bugs have compensated for diminished hardware unreliability.

The big winners in this process have been the smaller systems integrators, who have traditionally supplied avionic subsystems and software integration services to the prime contractors. Contractors in the UK, France, Israel and the US have quickly moved to exploit this market, and any defence journal today is bristling with advertisements for services and specific upgrades.

USAF and USN Upgrades

The United States Navy is facing the prospect of block obsolescence across much of its aircraft fleet, a situation which has been severely exacerbated by a series of what are arguably ill-considered program cancellations. The Navy's frontline outer air battle fighter, the F-14A, was to have been partially replaced by digital F-14Ds, with the remainder of the fleet to have been reengined and partially upgraded to F-14B configuration. A heated debate had developed over the replacement of the F-14 with the NATF, a navalised derivative of the USAF ATF, with contractors proposing various configurations of F-14 upgrade. The result has been the end of F-14D production, deployment to the fleet of jammer-less (ASPJ) airframes, and an aging fleet of TF-30 powered F-14As in fleet squadrons. It is unclear at this time as to what further upgrades the Tomcat will be subjected to, although a role to encompass strike as well as air superiority suggests that laser designation and night vision equipment may eventually be fitted.

The A-6E Intruder was to have been upgraded to A-6G configuration, with a new radar and enhanced avionics, as a gap filler until the stealthy A-12 Avenger II deployed in numbers to fleet squadrons. The A-12 died a messy death at the hands of the Bush Administration, its would be successor the AX never went beyond the vapourware phase and at this time no successor to the aircraft seems to have been agreed upon. As the A-6G upgrade was cancelled, only a limited rewinging program remained to keep the aircraft in service until the turn of the decade. Clearly by that time the aircraft will no longer be viable tactically so it is fair to say that the USN will lose its long range precision strike capability.

The F/A-18 appears to have the best prospects for survival on the carrier flight deck, although it is unclear what will happen with earlier model A/B aircraft as the F/A-18E/F phases in at the end of the decade. Whether these will be brought up the C/D avionic and systems standard has not been publicised.

The United States Air Force has similar pains with a large fleet of seventies built fighter aircraft. The F-15A/B models have reportedly suffered availability problems due to the increasingly difficult to support APG-63 air intercept radar, state of the art seventies technology built with a large fraction of custom components. It is unclear as to whether any of the fleet will be upgraded.

The C/D model fleet was upgraded to MSIP (Multi-Stage Improvement Program) standard in the first half of the eighties, this involving an APG-70 radar, upgraded mission computer and various avionic subsystem upgrades. The C/D model Wings will have their role expanded to encompass SEAD, the traditional Wild Weasel role, and many will be fitted with an emitter locating system and wired for HARM missiles. There is much debate in the EW community as to the wisdom of imposing a high workload two man mission upon a single pilot, but the US DoD seems to be determined to have its way.

The F-16 Falcon fleet is similarly aging, with many of the older A/B airframes assigned to Air National Guard squadrons or sold to Third World nations (eg Indonesia). The USAF had originally planned a comprehensive avionic upgrade to the A/B airframes to equip them as replacements for the A-10 Warthog in the CAIRS role, this including a helmet steered thermal imaging turret projecting on to the pilot's visor, and comprehensively upgraded communications gear. This did not eventuate.

279 Block 15 airframes were refitted in the late eighties to ADF (Air Defence Fighter) standard with provisions to carry Amraam, including the Amraam datalink, an improved APG-66 radar, GPS navigation and improved communications including the ARC-200 HF/SSB radio.

Many older aircraft were retrofitted to F-16A-OCU (Operational Capability Upgrade) standard in the late eighties, the upgrade involving primarily RLG INS, software upgrades and support for BVR missiles. Mid 1991 also saw the beginning of the Mid Life Upgrade (MLU) program for 553 airframes (originally 130 USAF, 110 Belgium, 63 Denmark, 172 Netherlands and 58 Norway). The upgrade involves fitting a Block 50 C/D model style cockpit, wide angle HUD, NVG compatible lighting and displays, a new mission computer, a digital terrain system, provisions for FLIR night vision equipment and microwave landing system.

The venerable F-111 will soldier on in the USAF, as it appears. The deployment of the F-15E saw the older model F-111E, F-111D and F-111G retired, leaving the F-111F and EW EF-111A in service, operations consolidated in the single overstrength 27th TFW at Cannon AFB in New Mexico. Interestingly, the USAF's leadership given the choice of retiring either B-52s or F-111Fs, opted to retain the F-111F due its Pave Tack capability. Media reports in this country of the impending demise of the remainder of the fleet are alas somewhat exaggerated, particularly as the EF-111A jammers are the only assets of their kind and will thus continue in service for at least another decade or longer. Fears of the RAAF losing its spares access are therefore unfounded and one could argue the result of political mischief in this country, compounded by irresponsible reporting.

The most bizzare proposal in relation to the F-111 is that suggested by a Canberra academic, that the RAAF's newly acquired F-111G aircraft should be broken up for spares, so as not to upset our neighbours. In the context of mutually supporting regional defence forces, such a move would guarantee a measure of upset, and no doubt convince our neighbours that we are quite irrational !

While the US and NATO countries are carrying out what are generally modest upgrades to their front line inventories, the situation is rather different with operators of second tier export fighters, be they of US or Soviet origin. Most of these are in Asia, and that will be the subject of Part 2.

Part 2

The decline in defence budgets which has occurred since the collapse of the USSR, as well as the saturation of the fighter marketplace with second hand aircraft, have created a boom in the fighter upgrade business. Systems integrators worldwide have taken advantage of the in the marketplace, and virtually no type in substantial use has escaped their attention. Part 2 will examine upgrade programs under way or being proposed in Asia and the Asia-Pacific region.

Asian and Asia-Pacific Upgrades

Asian air forces are largely equipped with Western equipment, if we disregard India, a long time Soviet customer, China, who reverse engineered a range of Soviet equipment, and North Korea and Vietnam. Both the North Koreans and Vietnamese are in questionable economic circumstances, while China's continueing contempt for Western sensitivities about human rights has largely restricted access to their market.

The dominant fighter aircraft in US supplied Asian inventories are the F-16A/B and F-5E/F, both low cost export fighters sold by the US in the seventies and eighties. Both of these types have relatively austere avionic fits, both designed with seventies technology, and thus prime candidates for upgrades.

The Far East in now in the throws of a major economic boom, as they enter the early phases of industrialisation, and not unlike Western nations in that phase of social evolution, they too are indulging in the expensive luxury of arms races.

Taiwan has recently ordered 150 F-16 aircraft and 60 Mirage 2000-5 strike aircraft, in response to mainland China's acquisition of the formidable Su-27 Flanker. In relation to the latter, a not unexpected development is China's attempt to acquire the manufacturing technology to licence build these aircraft. The result has been a sudden demand throughout the region for new aircraft and to a degree. upgrades, although Taiwanese plans to upgrade up to 200 existing fighters have been abandoned with the acquisition of the new aircraft.

South Korean interest in upgrading their F-5E/F fleet has been suspended while licenced assembly of the F-16 is a high priority. A modest structural upgrade of 27 dual F-5Bs will be carried out in the meantime, and many observers are optimistic about follow on upgrades to the later E/F model. The Koreans had initiated an upgrade of their F-4D/E force, contracting Rockwell to fit the Westinghouse APG-68 radar, but this program is reported to be stalled due funding problems.

The third major player in the Far East, Japan, is carrying out an extensive upgrade program to 100 of their F-4EJ Kai aircraft, this involving an APG-66J radar common to the F-16, Litton LN-39 INS, a Kaiser HUD and Hazeltine APX-79A IFF equipment. A locally developed J/APR-4Kai RWR will also be fitted, replacing the now obsolete ALR-46, and a Mitsubishi/Melco version of the Thomson-CSF Astac Elint system (used on the Mirage F.1CR) will be fitted to upgraded RF-4EJs.

Closer to Europe, the Turkish Air Force has issued an RFP for upgrades to 60 of its older F-5A/B aircraft, with the intention of using these as conversion trainers to the F-16 force. The upgrade is extensive and involves a doubling of airframe life through structural rebuilding, and the fitting of a glass cockpit, RLG INS and a GEC-Marconi wide angle HUD. The Turks are also planning a upgrade to 54 of their F-4 aircraft, involving structural life extension and the fitting of new radar and EW equipment.

Jordan planned to upgrade 23 of its F-5E/F aircraft, financing the scheme through the would be sale of four airframes to Indonesia. This has not transpired due US unhappiness about Indonesian behaviour in East Timor, resulting in the planned sale being blocked. The Jordanian upgrade would see either the APG-66T or APG-67(E) radar fitted, an RWR and HOTAS controls. Earlier upgrades to the Jordanian aircraft saw the fitting of BAe LINS 300 laser INS and the Selenia ALQ-234 EW pod.

Jordan's neighbour, Israel, is carrying out an extensive upgrade to the F-4E, the Kurnass/Phantom 2000 program involving the fitting of an Elbit nav/attack system built around an ACE-3 mission computer and dual redundant Mil-Std-1553B databusses, El-OP/Kaiser wide angle holographic HUD and Norden radar, and range of detail improvements including built in test facilities and reworked hydraulics. The Norden radar is a particularly sophisticated item with synthetic aperture high resolution surface mapping, using technology developed for the cancelled A-6G. A more ambitious upgrade offered by the Israelis is the Super Phantom, which is fitted with a pair of PW1120 turbojets, which offer additional thrust at a reduced weight, against the fifties technology J-79s. The IDF had originally planned to re-engine its F-4E fleet, but the cancellation of the Lavi program escalated the price of the engines to the point where the F-4 upgrade was deemed too expensive.

Israel has applied its skills to the Mirage as well as the Skyhawk, and Israeli contractors are offering upgrades to both types. The Mirage III/V airframe can be fitted with Kfir undercarriage, canards, an additional fuselage fuel tank and a Kfir style forward fuselage. The latter can house additional nav-attack avionics, such as the WDNS-391 inertial nav-attack system. EW equipment can be fitted, including both RWRs and chaff/flare dispensers. More comprehensive packages on offer include the GE/Flygmotor F404/RM12 12,000/18,000 lb thrust turbofan, and the Elta EL/M-2011/2032 pulse Doppler radars and Mil-Std-1553B bussing.

Indonesia is a long time user of the F-5E/F and reports suggest that they are interested in refitting the aircraft with a new HUD, INS, mission computer and Mil-Std-1553B databus. Five TNI-AU aircraft have already been fitted with the late model APG-157(V)5 radar. The possibility of these aircraft being refitted with a new Emerson APG-69 radar is being discussed in the trade press.

Malaysia is also considering its position in relation to upgrades, although it is unclear as to what money will be available given their recent commitment to purchase the MiG-29 Fulcrum and a small number of F/A-18D strike fighters. The RMAF has 32 ex-USN Skyhawks in service, and is considering refitting these with F-404-GE-100D fans as has been done by the Singaporeans, and fitting either the BAe LINS300 or Litton ASN-139 INS. Reports suggest even more ambitious plans, including an avionic upgrade not unlike that done to the RNZAF A-4 force. Of the original 88 strong RMAF fleet, 40 were upgraded by Grumman to A-4PTM standard with a Ferranti HUD, Hughes Angle Rate Bombing System (ARBS) common to the AV-8B, Lear Siegler AHRS and provisions for AIM-9J and AGM-65 Maverick.

Singapore has completed its extensive upgrade to its A-4 fleet. The Singaporean program saw non-afterburning F404-GE-100D fans fitted in a Phase I upgrade, followed by a GEC-Ferranti 4150 HUD, glass cockpit and a Litton LN-93 laser INS. The upgraded aircraft are designated the A-4S-1 Super Skyhawk. Singapore has also had eight of its F-5E aircraft upgraded to Tigereye tac recce configuration, with a camera pallet fitted in a rebuilt nose section. Unconfirmed reports suggest a radar equipped A-4 is nearing initial deployment.

New Zealand completed its extensive A-4K Kahu upgrade program in late 1990, with the aircraft receiving an APG-66(NZ) radar, largely common to the F-16, HOTAS controls, GI ALR-66 RWR, Ferranti 4150 HUDWAC, Litton LN-93 RLG INS, VOR/ILS nav and Tracor ALE-39 dispenser. The aircraft are tasked with maritime strike and CAIRS, and the AGM-65 Maverick is carried (the author had the pleasure of a guided tour of the A-4K courtesy of the RNZAF in 1992 - how the Kiwis got everything to fit in is quite astounding !). An interesting aspect of Kiwi operations is their use of the scene-magnification Maverick missile for target identification beyond Eyeball Mk.1 range.

The Communist Red Chinese PLA has also sought to modernise its largely obsolescent fleet of cloned Soviet designs. Whilst much effort has been poured into the acquisition of the capable Su-27 and the SA-10 Grumble (S-300) Patriot class SAM, a continueing problem will be the existing fleet of A-5, J-6 (MiG-19), J-7 (MiG-21) and J-8 II Finback aircraft. The newer J-8 family, an interesting blend of MiG-19 and MiG-21 technology, was to have been fitted with a sophisticated suite of Grumman integrated avionics. This program collapsed after the Chinese government crushed students under tank treads in 1989. The West's withdrawal from an increasingly hostile China has created an opportunity for the Russians, who are reported to have up to 5,000 technical support staff in the country. Whether Russian assistance will translate into upgrades for older types remains to be seen. The 4,000+ strong J-6/J-7/J-8 fleet is at the limit of its tactical viability. Unconfirmed reports suggest plans for Chinese acquisition of Tu-22M Backfire strategic bombers, while other reports implied an intention to refit the Chinese Xian H-6 (Tu-16) Badger fleet with inflight refuelling facilities.

Nevertheless, some Western integrators are still eyeing China as a potential market. Reports suggest that GEC-Marconi may offer the Blue Hawk pulse Doppler radar for use in an F-7 upgrade program.

Long time adversaries India and Pakistan have also been active with upgrades. The Pakistanis have contracted Sagem to modernise 15 Mirage IIIEP and RP aircraft with a MAESTRO (Modular Avionics Enhancement System Targeted for Retrofit Operations - a mouthful by any standard !) package, derived from Sagem's Mirage V package for the Belgian Air Force, which was to proceed but had its aircraft retired from under it. The PAF Mirage Vs are also to acquire a pulse Doppler radar, although the type has not been reported.

The PAF will also be fitting the Fiar Grifo 7 monopulse anti-shipping/AI radar to part of its Chinese built F/J-7 fleet. Much of the PAF F/J-7 fleet is equipped with factory fitted GEC-Marconi 956 HUD/WACs and 226 Skyranger ranging radars.

The Indian air force is reported to be contemplating a major upgrade of up to 120 of its large MiG-21 Fishbed fleet. Several contenders exist for this lucrative program. The official Russian sponsored MiG company proposal would see the Russian Mikoyan Bureau integrating a substantially French supplied avionic suite. Details are unclear, but reports suggest the use of Thomson-CSF and Sextant Avionic HUD, central computer, RLG, radar altimeter, RWR and ECM.

The Russians' principal competitor in this bid are seen to be the Israelis, with their MiG-21-2000 program. Israel's IAI have successfully won a bid to upgrade no less than 100 of Romania's MiG-21 fleet. The upgrade involves fitting a single piece windshield, a Martin-Baker ejection seat, glass cockpit, El-Op HUD, and an Elta EL/M-2030 series AI radar, which replaces the decrepid Soviet Jay-Bird radar. The later look-down pulse Doppler 2030 series radars are derived from the cancelled Lavi project, and support the Israeli Python-3 heatseeking missile.

The Israelis have been quick to exploit the growing upgrade market. IAI are also upgrading Chile's F-5 fleet with a similar package to the MiG-21. The Chilean upgrade is centred on the EL/M-2032B radar, glass cockpit displays, a Mil-Std-1553B bus tied to a central computer, an El-Op HUD and HOTAS controls.

Other contenders in the IAF MiG-21 upgrade program are GEC-Marconi, bidding a Blue Hawk radar and GEC HUD and glass cockpit, Sagem, India's HAL and at least two other bidders have been reported.

Nearer to home, the RAAF's F-111C Avionic Upgrade Program (AUP) is progressing quietly, although somewhat behind originally planned schedules. The RAAF's upgrade has not been widely publicised, but involves a comprehensive rework of the avionic system. The new avionic architecture will be structured around a pair of mission computers, with redundant Mil-Std-1553B busses, and glass cockpit displays will replace much of the conventional instrumentation. A modern INS will be fitted, replacing the vintage LN-14, and plans are under way to fit a comprehensive new EW system. Australian Aviation will provide a comprehensive review of the AUP as the program nears completion.

The RAAF's F/A-18A/B fleet has also been quietly brought closer to F/A-18C/D standard, including the ALR-67 RWR. The RAAF aircraft differ from the USN C/D model primarily in the use of the older, lower thrust engines, and the original radar, for which the US did not provide software source code. AAS-38 Flir/laser pods for LGB targeting and designation are being fitted. Upgrades are the current trend, for very good reasons, and it is interesting to see how well some of the smaller integrators have adapted to the new marketplace, which the larger defence contractors are still grappling with. What is certain is that many of the fighter types we have come to know well during the last two decades will soldier on, with smarter systems and improved capabilities.

A thought to contemplate is whether Australian systems integrators should become more involved in this growing market. The payoff is certainly there.

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