Monday, 28 December 2015

F-16SG? Upgrading Singapore's Fighting Falcons

 The F-16 Fighting Falcon

Maiden flight of the F-16V with the Northrop Grumman
APG-83 SABR AESA radar on 16th Oct 2015
 over the skies of Fort Worth, Texas. Lockheed Martin Photo

The F-16 Fighting Falcon is arguably America's most successful fighter aircraft of the modern era. It was conceptualized in the late sixties as a light weight, super-sonic, air superiority day fighter with a high thrust to weight ratio, good range and good agility, lessons learnt from the Vietnam War. It saw first flight in 1974 and was first introduced into active service with the United States Air Force ( USAF ) in 1978. Since then, incremental upgrades to the F-16's radar, engines and avionics have transformed the Falcon from a day interceptor into an all-weather multi-role combat aircraft capable of anything from ground attack to SEAD/DEAD to air superiority missions.

The General Dynamics YF-16 : the Mother of All F-16s on an
aerial refueling mission Mar 1975.
In 1993 the Aerospace Division of General Dynamics was sold to Lockheed.
 Photo : Lockheed Martin

The F-16 is currently in active service in not just the USAF but also the Air National Guard (ANG), the Air Force Reserve Command, the USAF Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team and in the US Navy's Naval Strike And Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) as aggressor aircrafts.

F-16s of the Texas Air National Guard flying in formation
in a photo dated 28th Oct 2011.
Texas is also known as the Lone Star State. Lockheed Martin Photo.

An F-16 of the USAF Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team
banks right over the Rocky Mountains after being refueled
in-flight by a KC-135 Stratotanker 21st May 2015. U.S. Air Force photo

An F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron
 takes off during Red Flag 14-1 on Jan. 28, 2014,
at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Aggressor aircrafts
 have the most exotic paint schemes to create the
visual resemblance of enemy aircrafts. U.S. Air Force photo

In addition, the F-16 had been exported to 28 other foreign operators including Israel (362 aircrafts of various models and variants), Turkey (270), Egypt (220), the Netherlands (213), South Korea (180), Greece (170), Belgium (160), Taiwan (150), Morocco, the UAE, Oman, Iraq, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Pakistan, Poland, Romania and a few others. Along the way, it had also spawned a Japanese variant, the Mitsubishi F-2, which looked like an oversized Falcon, not to mention being overpriced too!

To date, a total of 4550 F-16s had been built and the production lines at Lockheed Martin are still open. There are sufficient orders to keep them busy till at least the year 2017.

Viper or Falcon?

Every American military aircraft has an official name, but pilots and ground crew often have other ideas. The Lockheed Martin F-16 is officially known as the Fighting Falcon, but it has always been nicknamed the Viper, apparently by the folks at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, home to the very first operational F-16 unit of the USAF. The story goes that the F-16 does resemble a cobra when viewed from the end of the runway ( see picture below ), but the Cobra name had already been claimed by the Northrop YF-17, predecessor of the F/A-18 Hornet fighter, and so the Viper it was.

The Viper nickname predates the official USAF given name of Fighting Falcon, which was the winning entry of the Name-the-Plane Contest organized by the Air Force in 1976. That name was submitted by TSgt. Joseph A. Kurdell of the 1st TFW, MacDill AFB, Florida. The official USAF naming ceremony however, only took place on 21st July 1980 at where else but Hill AFB!

With some imagination, the F-16 taking off or landing does
 actually resemble a cobra rearing up and ready to strike.
As the cobra nickname has already been taken, the viper name stuck.
 A USAF F-16 Fighting Falcon lands after a Red Flag 15-2 sortie
March 11, 2015, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
The F-16 is assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron
 at Hill AFB, Utah. U.S. Air Force photo

The Variants

Like most fighter jets, the F-16 comes in 2 primary variants, single-seat or twin-seat. Single-seat fighters are usually used for air superiority roles whereas the twin-seat fighters carry an additional weapon systems officer (WSO) aka wizzo which is advantageous in a ground attack situation. The earliest batches of the F-16 had the A suffix to indicate a single-seat version and a B suffix to denote a twin-seat version. Later batches carry the C suffix for single-seat and the D suffix for twin-seat. The latest batch have correspondingly the E and the F suffixes.

Over the decades since its introduction, the F-16 had constantly evolved to enable it to take on new combat roles and deliver new weapon systems. The variants are further differentiated by their block number, bigger number indicating more advanced versions. For example the initial F-16A and F-16Bs evolved from Block 1 to 5, 10,15, 15OCU and 20. This was followed on by the F-16C and F-16Ds with block numbers ranging from 25, 30, 32, 40, 42, 50, 52 and 50+/52+ indicating advanced versions beyond Block 50 and 52. The very latest variants are the F-16E and F-16F Block 60.

An F-16F Block 60 of the UAE, aka Desert Falcon,
currently the most advanced F-16 in production
with the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 AESA radar
in a photo dated 26th Oct 2011.
Notice the dorsal fairing ( the spine )
and the conformal fuel tanks
 ( the side bulge above the wing root ). Lockheed Martin Photo.

As a result of the USAF's Alternate Fighter Engine Program in 1984, F-16C/Ds from Block 30 or later have a common engine bay and can be powered by either a Pratt and Whitney or a General Electric turbofan. Block numbers ending with a 0 denotes an F-16 with a General Electric engine while those ending with a 2 are fitted with a Pratt and Whitney engine. So a Block 50 and a Block 52 are identical except for the engines.

Operational History

That the F-16 is combat proven is without doubt. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) scored the first F-16 air-to-air combat victory over the Bekaa Valley in April 1981 against a Syrian Mi-8 Helicopter. Barely two months later 8 F-16s of the IAF with F-15s providing top cover, carried out a pre-emptive strike against Saddam Hussain's Osirak nuclear reactor which was then under construction southeast of Bagdad and severely damaged it. It would otherwise have the capability of producing weapons-grade plutonium once operational. The 1982 Lebanon War saw intense fighting between the IAF and the Syrian Air Force and ended with 44 air-to-air kills credited to the IAF F-16s. The Falcons also saw action in Operation Desert Storm, the Balkans, Operations Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, and in Libya during the Arab Spring period while the most recent " Turkey Shoot " incident over the skies of Syria involved the downing of a Russian Su-24M Fencer by Turkish F-16 fighters.

A pair of Israeli Air Force F-16I Sufa with ECM
and Targeting Pods at Red Flag 09-4 Nellis Nevada. USAF Photo

Old Fighters Never Die ....

Neither do they fade away. They get upgraded! No air-frame would last forever. Maintenance costs escalate as the engine ages. Electronic components become obsolete from the moment they are installed! There are now many older F-16As and Bs and earlier versions of the Cs and Ds serving in the USAF and many other countries that could be upgraded cost effectively to boost their combat performance and extend their service life. In the US particularly, the delays that beset the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, the very fighter that was supposed to be the F-16 replacement, meant that the Air Force had to postpone the retirement of its F-16 fleet and instead allocate funds to upgrade them. The number planned was 300 F-16s but the Sequestration is making that difficult. Elsewhere, some of the international F-16 customers that are embarking on their own upgrade programmes include South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore.

The F-35A Lightning II ( foreground ) would eventually replace
the ageing F-16 ( background ).
Both fighters from Luke AFB. Lockheed Martin Photo.

Interestingly, in recent history, the only US jet fighter that had been produced in greater numbers that the F-16 was the Vietnam War era McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II ( a grand total of 5195 aircrafts ). They have all been retired from active service in the US since 1996 and a small number are converted into QF-4 unmanned aerial target drones. As the number of useable F-4 air-frames dwindle at the Davis-Monthan AFB aircraft boneyard in Arizona, the USAF is beginning to convert old F-16s into QF-16 drones. So old fighters do sometimes have to die ... but for a good cause.

No Pilot! A QF-16 Full Scale Aerial Target from
the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron flies
 over the Gulf of Mexico during its first unmanned flight
 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., 19th Sep 2013.
 The 82nd ATRS operates the Department of Defense’s
only full-scale aerial target program.
The QF-16 will provide fourth generation fighter representation
of real world threats for testing and training. U.S. Air Force photo

Singapore's F-16 Fleet

Back in 1985, Singapore placed an initial order of 8 F-16A/B Block 15OCU ( Operational Capability Upgrade ) aircrafts to replace the Republic of Singapore Air Force's (RSAF) ageing 1950 era Hawker Hunter fighters. This was done under the Peace Carvin I Foreign Military Sales programme. The aircrafts, four F-16A and four F-16B were delivered in 1988 to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where the RSAF conducts its F-16 pilot training with the USAF. The F-16 fighters were not brought back to Singapore until 1990.

This unusual training arrangement was necessary because Singapore, being only slightly bigger than 700 km² in terms of land area, also has an extremely limited sovereign air space for pilot training. Luke AFB belongs to the Air Education and Training Command ( AETC ) and is responsible for training US and foreign F-16, F-15 and F-35 pilots. Occupying about 7700 km² of the Sonoran Desert, it is more than ten times the size of Singapore. Training at Luke AFB enabled the RSAF pilots to learn from and to be benchmarked against the best of the best F-16 operators and the opportunity to participate in large scale, multi-national air combat exercises like the annual Red Flag series at Nellis AFB, Nevada and Eielson AFB, Alaska. It had allowed the RSAF to achieve full operational capability with the single-seat F-16C and twin-seat F-16D within an accelerated time frame of 5 years when the new fighter type was first introduced into service. The current Peace Carvin II training agreement was started in 1993 and is now in its 22nd year. It had be extended a couple of times and will end in 2018, unless further extended!

Other interesting facts about Luke AFB : the millionth F-16 Fighting Falcon flying training hour at Luke Air Force Base was reached on 13th March 2013. F-16s first touched down at Luke AFB on 6th Dec 1982. By March 2013, Luke has graduated 18,164 F-16 fighter pilots. Approximately 2,000 F-16 hours are flown a month by Luke pilots and students.

F-16 fighters from various squadrons based at Luke AFB
fly in formation celebrating the Viper's 30th anniversary
at the base in 2012. The F-16C in the foreground from the
425th Fighter Squadron bearing the RSAF's lion roundel
is part of the Peace Carvin II deteachment.
Over the next 15 years, Singapore were to order a total of another 62 advanced F-16C/D block 52/52+ aircrafts in four installments. These are the breakdown.

Peace Carvin II ( 1994 ) 18 aircrafts comprising 8 F-16C and 10 F-16D Block 52
Lease and buy*   ( 199? ) 12 aircrafts comprising 4 F-16C and 8 F-16D Block 52
Peace Carvin III ( 1997 ) 12 aircrafts comprising 10 F-16C and 2 F-16D Block 52
Peace Carvin IV ( 2000 ) 20 aircrafts comprising of 20 F-16D Block 52+

* Direct from Lockheed Martin, not through Foreign Military Sales programme. Only those aircrafts bought under FMS have a Peace ~ designation.

Shortly after being brought back to Singapore in 1990, two of RSAF's F-16A fighters were involved in a mid-air collision over the South China Sea. One of the F-16A was lost. The remaining 7 F-16A/B aircrafts were eventually transferred/donated to Thailand, a friendly neighbor who also operates a small fleet of F-16A/B on 18th Nov 2004. By getting rid of the early model F-16A/B, RSAF became an operator of all advanced block 52/52+ F-16.

RSAF's Block 52 and 52+ Features and Capabilities

RSAF's F-16C and F-16D fighters.

The RSAF's Block 52 and 52+ Falcons, though not of the latest versions, are capable machines nonetheless. They have been extensively modified with Israeli avionics and also upgrades to the onboard mission computer by the local defense company ST Aerospace and are therefore not your usual Block 52/52+.

They are powered by the Pratt and Whitney F100 PW-229 afterburning turbofan with a relatively low bypass ratio of 36%. This jet engine has a weight of 3826 pounds and produces 17800 pounds of dry thrust and 29160 pounds of wet thrust ( with afterburner ). Hence it is said to have a thrust to weight ratio of 7.6 ( 29160/3826 ). First available in 1989, the PW-229 powers the USAF's F-15E Strike Eagle fleet ( twin-engine ) and most of the world's late model F-16C/D fleet ( single engine ). Note that the RSAF's F-15SG fighters have the higher-thrust General Electric F110-GE-129C in place of the Pratt and Whitney F100 engines that power most other F-15s and this will ensure that any potential F100 engine issues would not ground the entire high-end fighter fleet of the RSAF all at one go.

This compact but powerful engine allows the F-16 to achieve a speed of Mach 1.2 at sea level and up to Mach 2.0 at altitude. It has a rate of climb of 50000ft/min and an effective combat radius of 550km carrying 4 x 1000lb bombs in a hi-lo-hi mission profile. Its ferry range is 4220km with drop tanks.

As always, the fire control radar plays a crucial role in determining a fighter aircraft's combat capabilities. The Block 52 Falcons are equipped with the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-68(V)5 long range pulse-doppler radar while the Block 52+ are equipped with the AN/APG-68(V)9 radar. The (V) 9 version has a 33% increase in detection range compared to the older (V)5 version from which it evolved. It is also lighter, cooler and more reliable and less prone to failure and easier to maintain. Best of all, it features a high resolution synthetic aperture radar (SAR) which can generate highly detailed terrain maps which allows the pilot to locate and recognize tactical ground targets from considerable distances. Combined with GPS-guided weapons like the GBU-54 and the JDAM munitions which the RSAF have in its inventory, it allows the F-16 to perform precision strikes against ground targets in all weather conditions.

Using commercial of the shelf components, the AN/APG(V)9 has a processor with 5 times the processing power of its predecessor and 10 times its memory and therefore would be more resistant to electromagnetic interference and countermeasures. Track-while-scan and single target track performance are all improved. Replacing this already capable fire-control radar with an even more advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar similar to the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 radar equipping the F-16E/F Block 60 Falcons would be a key part of any future Block 52/52+ upgrade.

The Northop Grumman AN/APG-68 fire control radar sits within the small
and narrow nose cone of the F-16 fighter. NGC Photo

Other important features of the Block 52/52+ F-16 include compatibility with various legacy and advanced targeting add-on pods like the LANTIRN series and its successor the Sniper Series from Lockheed Martin. LANTIRN is the acronym for Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night and consisted of two separate external pods, the AN/AAQ-13 Navigation Pod and the AN/AAQ-14 Targeting Pod. Such add on pods increases the combat effectiveness of the aircraft by enabling it to fly at low altitudes, in the night, under all weather conditions, to deliver precision strike against surface targets. The RSAF has in its inventory an undisclosed number of LANTIRN and Sniper pods for their fleet of F-16 and F-15.

Upgrading RSAF's F-16 Fleet

Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen revealed in Sep 2013 that the RSAF planned to upgrade its fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons to modernise their avionics and extend their lifespan. On 13 Jan 2014, the Defense Security Coorporation Agency ( DSCA ) notified the American Congress about a possible Foreign Military Sale to Singapore for an upgrade of F-16 block 52 aircraft and associated equipment, parts, training and logistical support for an estimated cost of USD 2.43 billion. This will involve 60 F-16C/D/D+ aircrafts and an assortment of weapons and equipment including :

70 Active Electronically Scanned Array Radars ( AESA )
70 LN-260 Embedded Global Positioning System / Inertial Navigation Systems ( GPS/INS )
70 Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing Systems ( JHMCS )
70 APX-125 Advanced Identification Friend or Foe ( IFF ) Interrogator / Transponders
3 AIM-9X block II Captive Air Training Missiles ( CATM )
3 TGM-65G Maverick Missiles
4 GBU-50 Guided Bomb Units
5 GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions ( JDAM )
3 CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapon ( SFW )
4 GBU-49 Enhanced Paveway ( Laser Guided Munition )
6 GBU-12 Paveway II Guidance Control Units
2 DSU-38 Laser Seekers

And many other items like secure communications equipment, mission computers, ground support equipment and tools, training support. See the DSCA News Release Transmittal 13-67 dated 14th Jan 2014 below for complete details. Notification to Congress is a necessary procedure for any Foreign Military Sales and is by no means a confirmation that the sale is secured. But it is mostly a formality as by this stage in-principle approval must have been given by the regulating authorities already.

DSCA News Release Transmittal 13-67 : Upgrading of RSAF F-16
dated 14th Jan 2014

By 3Q2015, MINDEF further revealed that the upgrading works would commence from 2016 and would be conducted in phases, with the entire process taking 5 or 6 years. Then news emerged earlier this month that the US Department of Defense awarded the F-16 upgrading contract worth USD 914 million to Lockheed Martin Corporation ( LMC ). Before this it was a choice between BAE Systems ( BAE ) or LMC. As the original equipment manufacturer, LMC probably is the most qualified to upgrade the F-16 but BAE also has accumulated credible experience with this aircraft. The upgraded F-16, perhaps it would be called the F-16SG, with its yet to be publically revealed AESA radar selection, will have capabilities similar to LMC's very own upgrade offering- the F-16V.


While LMC has emerged as the appointed prime contractor for RSAF's F-16 upgrade programme, the question of the AESA Radar type is still not made public. Currently there are 2 options and both have similar capabilities.

The Northrop Grumman Scalable Agile Beam Radar ( SABR ) designated AN/APG-83 is the preferred AESA radar offered by LMC for its F-16V and for the upgrade programs for the USAF and the Taiwanese Air Force. It is tipped to be selected by the RSAF as well. It is designed to be retrofitted into F-16s without the need for any structural, power or cooling modifications. Just how scalable is it? A variant of the SABR known as the SABR-Global Strike has been developed for the Rockwell B-1B Lancer supersonic bomber.

Apart from providing the F-16E/F Block 60 Desert Falcon's AN/APG-80 radar, Northrop Grumman Corporation ( NGC ) also manufactures the AN/APG-77 AESA radar for the F-22 Raptor and the AN/APG-81 for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and therefore would have had a good history of co-operation with LMC, the prime contractor / systems integrator. Selecting the SABR for RSAF's F-16 could mean a smoother and less risky integration.

Northrop Grumman APG-83 SABR for the F-16 Source : NGC

Close-up view of the SABR AESA fire control radar. Source NGC

The other option is the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar ( RACR ) touted to be a compact, light weight drop-in upgrade solution for the F-16. It claims 90% commonality with Raytheon's existing range of AESA radars like the APG-63v3 which are installed in RSAF's F-15SG Eagles. Choosing this radar for RSAF's F-16 could translate to cost savings from commonality between the F-15 and F-16 radars. The RACR is the radar selected by the South Koreans for their F-16 upgrade program.

The RACR for the F-16 ( far right ) is the smallest among Raytheon's AESA
offering for the various fighters. From left to right APG-82 ( F-15E upgrade ),
APG-63v3 ( F-15SG ), APG-79 ( F/A-18E/F ) and RACR for F/A18 upgrade ).
 Photo : Raytheon

The Raytheon RACR AESA radar for the F-16. Photo : Raytheon

 The LN-260 Advanced Embedded GPS/INS Navigation System

The LN-260 is Northrop Grumman's high performance, light weight and low cost INS/GPS that ultilises a fibre-optic gyroscope-based inertial navigation sensor assembly together with a Selective Availability Anti-Spoofing Module GPS. The non-dithered, low noise fibre-optic gyroscope technology eliminates self-induced artifacts like acceleration and velocity noise, resulting in superior navigation and Synthetic Aperture Radar stabilization performance, as well as the highest accuracy in target location. It weighs less than 11.79kg, according to NGC.

NGC LN-260 product brochure image.

Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System

The JHMCS is a natural evolution of the Head-Up Display ( HUD ) of the 1970s. It is the fighter pilot's look and shoot targeting device, putting the HUD into the helmet. It combines a magnetic head tracker with a display projected onto the pilot's visor, giving the pilot a targeting device that can be use to aim sensors and weapons at whatever direction he is looking. It synchronises the aircraft's sensors with the pilot's head movements so that they automatically point where the pilot looks. More importantly, the flight and targeting information are displayed on the inside of the helmet visor so that the data is always available no matter where the pilot looks to. The JHMCS is modular and can be configured for day or night sensors. The latest generation JHMCS II and its equivalent even have integrated day and night modes.

The JHMCS gives the wearer previously unimaginable situational awareness at a single glance and when combined with the latest generation AIM-9X and AIM9X2 sidewinder missiles with high off-boresight capability allows the pilot to engage an enemy fighter at  more than 80 degrees away from his axis of movement with only a turn of his head! The JHMCS and the AIM-9X are made for each other and are collectively known as the High Off-Boresight Seeker ( HOBS ) system.

The RSAF supposedly already has in its inventory the Elbit DASH III helmet mounted display and the Python 4 high off-boresight air-to-air missile so the JHMCS is not an entirely new capability. Anyway, the Soviets got that part figured out close to thirty years ago when they integrated a helmet mounted display with the R-73 ( AA-11 Archer ) on the MiG-29 Fulcrum towards the end of the Cold War. The US managed to field the JHMCS only by 2003.

Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System. Photo : Boeing


The AN/APX-125 Advanced IFF Transponder / Receiver

As radars become more powerful with greater detection range and with the proliferation of BVR air-to-air missiles, modern day air battles are increasing being fought from stand-off distances. So it is natural that one would also need to rapidly and accurately distinguish between friend and enemy at those astounding BVR distances. Upgrading to a more powerful IFF device with greater detection range and higher reliability is therefore a no brainer.

The BAE Systems AN/APX-125 Advanced Identification Friend or Foe combined interrogator / transponder ( CIT ) system is adapted from the older AN/APX-113 and is specifically developed for the F-16. It enables the warfighter to rapidly differentiate between friendly and potentially hostile forces at distances way beyond visual range. BAE's product brochure states that the APX-125 includes Mode S Elementary and Enhanced Surveillance ( ELS and EHS ) transponder capabilities and Mode 5 interrogator and transponder capabilities. The interrogator subsystem has a detection range beyond 100 nautical miles. Apart from threat identification, IFF has an important role in preventing accidental blue-on-blue incidences.

The AN/APX-125 Advanced IFF combined interrogator / transponder. Photo : BAE

IRST : Glaring Omission?

IRST is the abbreviation for Infra-Red Search and Tract. They are essentially thermal detectors which could be useful in detecting the heat signature of otherwise stealthy aircraft that are difficult to detect by the usual X-Band radars. They are also good for detecting the thermal flare of missile launch from enemy fighters. IRST devices have been staple for Russian and European fighters for the past two decades but their development and implementation on US combat aircrafts have been hampered for eons presumably due to the flawed perception that the American radar technology and missile technology was 2 or 3 generations ahead of that of the Soviet Union, therefore reducing the need for an additional detection device. The F-16 never had one to begin with.

With the impending fielding of 5th generation very low observable ( VLO ) fighters from Russia and China and the eventuality that they could be exported to regional countries, it makes sense to future-proof an expensive investment by including an IRST device.

Part of the cover of IHS Jane's Defence Weekly 19th Nov 2014
Vol 51 Issue 47 : J-31 for export!

To be fair the F-15SG Strike Eagles of the RSAF already have an advanced electro-optical sensor suite from Lockheed Martin that includes the Sniper / Pantera targeting pods, Tiger Eyes FLIR for targeting and navigation, and IRST for passive air-to-air detection. So it might not be that critical for the upgraded Falcons not to have it. Still it could be a nice capability to acquire. My guess is that Lockheed Martin's advanced generation IRST21 which had just this year been approved for low rate initial production for the F'A-18E/F Super Hornet might eventually be purchased separately and integrated into RSAF's upgraded F-16 which could take the form of an add-on external pod. Works is still in progress at LMC.

Lockheed Martin's IRST21 is compact and can be mounted on the nose section
of the F/A-18's centerline fuel tank or be placed in an add-on pod. LMC photo.

Why Upgrade?

If the F-16 is such a capable multi-role fighter, why bother to upgrade it at all? Well the most obvious reason to upgrade a platform is to enhance its capabilities even further. Weapons technology is always advancing and previously unavailable options might now be on the table : better sensors, more powerful munitions etc. When the first F-16C/D Block 52 were delivered to the RSAF in 1998, their potential adversaries in the region were the MiG-29N Fulcrum, F-5E Tiger II and F/A-18 Hornet from the Royal Malaysian Air Force ( RMAF ) for which the advance block 52 F-16 are more than a match. By 2007, RMAF added the Su-30MKM and the AA-12 Adder beyond visual range air-to-air missile to its ranks and that represents a tremendous enhancement in capability. Similarly, the Indonesian Air Force was operating a mix of early generation F-16A/B Block 15OCU and F-5E at the turn of the century. Now they still have the F-16A/B but will soon receive additional F-16C/D refurbished to Block 50/52 standard, they have also a fleet of Su-27 Flanker and Su-30MK2 and will be replacing the F-5E with ..... Su-35 Flanker-E aka Super Flanker with thrust vectoring and the works. So unless RSAF upgrades its F-16 fleet, they would soon be rendered obsolete by the Flankers, Advanced Flankers and soon Super Flankers of its immediate neighbours.

You want to fight this? Sukhoi Su-35 with AA-11 and AA-12 AAM.
 Legacy US teens series fighters are completely outclassed by
the advanced Flankers. Photo : Sukhoi

Based on the total cost of USD 2.43 billion, the average cost of upgrading each F-16 will amount to US$40.5 million. This is significantly cheaper than buying newly build F-16Vs which cost about $60 million. Compare that to the F-35A which currently cost US$98 million without the engines ( the total cost of the F-35 is so prohibitively high that it is too vulgar to publish ), you would realize that replacing the F-16 with the F-35 like what the USAF intends to do is not economically feasible for most of America's allies.

F-16V or F-16SG

Will the RSAF's upgraded Falcons be designated the F-16V or will they be unique enough to form a sub-class by themselves, earning a separate F-16SG designation? From past experiences, chances are high that the upgrade would include additional components developed by Singapore's DSO National Laboratories and other non-US aerospace companies.

The upgraded fighters will have advanced fire control radars, advanced navigation, communications and IFF equipment, helmet mounted sights, and the ability to launch advanced precision munitions like laser JDAMs and enhanced Paveway II laser / GPS guided bombs.

Upgrading the F-16s makes a lot of sense as it would postpone the need to acquire the next generation fighter, namely the F-35 JSF, for some years. The early adopters always end up paying more as unit price will drop with later tranches and volume production.

The F-16 is an incredibly well designed and well built aircraft. Although the F-16 Block 50 was originally rated for 8000 Equivalent Flight Hours ( EFH ) of service life, Lockheed Martin has recently completed 25000 hours of simulated flight time on a F-16C Block 50 airframe at its Full Scale Durability Test Facility in Fort Worth, Texas. The FSDT results will eventually be used to extend the service life of the F-16 to 12000 EFH. That's an additional 20 years of service life, assuming on average an annual flight time of 200 hours. So it might not be inconceivable to see the F-16 flying along with the F-15SG and probably the F-35B in 2035 during the SG70 celebrations, maybe even SG75, depending on the cost of the F-35. Time will tell.

Update : The latest developments on the F-16 Block 70/72 and possible shifting of F-16 production to India here.

RSAF's F-16D block 52 with dorsal fairing similar to those seen on
Israeli Air Force F-16Ds. They are rumoured to house the
Israeli Elisra SPS-3000 ECM suite ( self-protection jammer ). 

Another RSAF F-16D block 52 with the dorsal fairing and what looks like
the Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Turkey Shoot : Fencer Down!

Fencer Down ... Hip Down ...

The Sukhoi Su-24M Fencer of the Russian Air Force shown in this 2009 photo is a supersonic all-weather fighter-bomber with variable-sweep wings and tandem seats. A product of the Cold-War, its American counterpart of the same era, though now long retired, is the General Dynamics FB-111 Aardvark. Photo : Wikipedia

No we are not referring to the Marianas Turkey Shoot of June 1944 or the Bekka Valley Turkey Shoot of June 1982. Ten days ago, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M Fencer fighter-bomber on an bombing mission against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL ) in northern Syria was shot down by F-16 fighters of the Turkish Air Force, after it apparently violated Turkish air space and did not respond to at least ten warnings over a period of five minutes. The aircraft was seen to have gone down in flames. Both crew ejected but one was killed by rebel fighters while the other was rescued.

Meanwhile a Mi-8 Hip helicopter dispatched to the crash site on a search and rescue mission made an unscheduled landing after it developed mechanical issues came under fire by Free Syrian Army rebel forces using supposedly American supplied TOW anti-tank missiles. It was also completely destroyed with one its crew member killed.

This has to be until now the worse day for the Russian Forces operating in Syria in support of the Assad regime. It was an accident waiting to happen, as multiple fast jets, helicopters and drones from various nations fighting ISIL ply the narrow and congested corridors in the boarder zones between Syria and Turkey with impunity. The situation was made more complicated by many previous violations of Turkish air space by Russian fighter jets in the past two months with Turkey warning about tough consequences and new rules of engagement.

According to the Washington Post, it was the first time in more than 63 years when an aircraft from a NATO member had shot down Soviet planes and it represented a serious international incident with the potential for escalation. Russian President Bloodimir Putin was naturally livid, claiming that the bomber was in Syrian air space within 1 km of the boarder when it was shot down, that it was a " stab in the back ".

Now, Russia has the perfect excuse to deploy advanced air defense missiles and more fighter jets to Syria, right at the doorsteps of NATO's southern boarder ... all thanks to the trigger-happiness of one madman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The Syrian Morass

As the World knows, the popular Syrian uprising against their oppressive government lead by President Bashar al-Assad which began in the spring of 2011 quickly deteriorated into an all out civil war with multiple factions fighting the government forces as well as each other. Many of these factions are divided along ethnic or religious lines and are backed by various power players in the Middle-East like Turkey and Saudi Arabia while others have links to extremist organisations like al-Qaeda. The more moderate rebel militias received support from the US and the European Union. The Assad regime meanwhile received support from Russia, Iraq and even direct assistance from Iran in the form of Hezbollah fighters and military advisors on the ground. The situation became even more complicated by late 2012 when the Kurds in northern Syria, initially neutral, got dragged into the conflict as well.

It was unfortunate that all those events were happening at a time when the US forces was being drawn down in neighbouring Iraq. With the Iraq Army militarily weak and the command and government riddled with corruption, the Sunni insurgent group which called itself the Islamic State of Iraq ( ISI ) started to seize territory in northern and western Iraq, culminating in the capture of the City of Mosul. Lead by a core of former Ba'athist military and intelligence officers who served under the Saddam regime, ISI also established itself over the border in Syria as well, fighting both the Assad forces and the rebel forces simultaneously.

No doubt aided by the large quantities of weapons captured from the impotent Iraqi Army, many of which were donated by the US, the Islamic insurgents proved themselves to be a capable fighting force and rapidly gained territory in Syria. By April 2013, with large swathes of land straddling Iraq in the east and Syria in the west under its control, the organisation declared itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ( ISIS ), sometimes also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant ( ISIL ), Islamic State ( IS ), or simply Daesh to the Arab speaking world.

ISIL has been labeled a terror organisation by the United Nations and many other countries around the world. It imposed strict Islamic law on the populace in the regions that it occupied and carried out hideous crimes against humanity including destruction of heritage sites, torture, rape, summary executions, beheadings and even ethnic cleansing. Internet savvy experts then upload videos of such criminal acts online as propaganda and to recruit fighters, many of whom were foreigners seeking adventure and glory. Funding came from various sources including the sale of oil and refined petroleum products, sale of looted antiques from state museums and institutions, tax imposed on the populace and businesses, ransom moneys paid by kidnapped victims ... you get the idea.

Mesopotamian Morass as of 18th Nov 2015 : Pink - Iraqi Government controlled ; Grey - ISIL ; Dark Yellow - Iraqi Kurdistan ; Lighter Yellow - Syrian Kurdistan ; Light Orange : Syrian Government ; Green - Syrian Rebels ; White - Ai-Nusra Front ; Blue - Hezbollah ; Deep Orange - Lebanon Government. Wikipedia 

Coalition Air Campaign Against ISIL 

While the United States was contented to initially providing non-lethal aid to the Syrian rebels at the beginning of the civil war, it soon became obvious that more had to be done for the rebels to at least have a remote chance of toppling Assad or warding off ISIL. Weapons, ammunition and training for moderate rebels soon followed. The gruesome beheading of several foreign journalists and aid workers by ISIL last year ultimately resulted in the commencement of air strikes in Syria on 22nd Sep 2014 by a coalition of nations which included the US, France, Canada, Australia, Turkey and several Arab League nations including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

Obama and his Air Force brass were then quite confident of crushing ISIL within a matter of weeks with their bombing sorties but one year on they weren't so sure anymore. More and more aircraft types were quietly added to the strike fleet, including the A-10C Warthog and even the AH-64D Apache, but ISIL remained elusive and resilient. Let no one be deluded to believe that a few bombs dropped over a vast desert could actually defeat an insurgent group like ISIL without putting boots on the ground. Anyway, one after another, the various coalition partners lost their focus and withdrew their tiny fleets, leaving the US to shoulder the main burden of the air campaign. Jordan stopped contributing after its F-16 pilot was captured and burnt alive, Canada terminated its efforts after a change in government, the Arab League got distracted by a new conflict in Yemen.... . So that set the stage for the Russians to get their hands dirty too.

Russian Deployment To Syria

Russia had always kept close ties with Syria for as long as anyone could remember. Syria is its strategic partner in the Middle-East providing Russia with a naval base in the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is also an important client for Russian arms export, generating billions of dollars worth of hard cash for Putin. In return, Syria gets political support from Moscow at the international level, to shield it from any accusations of wrong doings or misdeeds. It is sort of a symbiotic relationship.

If the Assad regime goes, Moscow could lose its foothold in the Middle-East as the next government may not necessarily be Russia-leaning. So I suppose Putin finally decided that the time was ripe for direct Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war, one year after the US lead bombing campaign achieved hardly any results.

The most amazing thing about the Russian military deployment to Syria was no doubt the rapidness with which its was implemented when the order was given. The first indications of a possible Russian deployment came in September when a sudden increase in military air transport to the Syrian port city of Latakia was noted. Within days, the infrastructure to accommodate entire air wings were erected, complete with modular living quarters, control tower, helipads and the works. A ground protection force of marine commandos and T-90 main battle tanks and armoured personnel carriers were also deployed.

What followed was the deployment of close to 40 combat aircrafts of various types : 4 Su-30SM Flanker, 12 Su-24M Fencer, 4 Su-34 Fullback, 12 Su-25 Frog Foot and about a dozen helicopters including gunships.

Russian Air Force Su-25 Frog Foot ground attack aircraft at Hmeimim Air Base 2015. Photo Russian Defense Ministry.

Russian Air Force Su-34 Fullback fighter-bomber with its distinctive tandem seats, canards and stinger. Source : Wikipedia

Su-30SM Multi-role Fighter with short range air-to-air missiles. Source United Aircraft Corporation

The Su-24 is an ageing Soviet era supersonic fighter bomber with variable-sweep wings designed in the sixties, the equivalent of the General Dynamics FB-111 Aardvark of the USAF. The Su-25 is a dedicated ground attack aircraft very similar to the Fairchild Republic A-10 Warthog. The Su-30SM is an advance Flanker variant capable of both air-superiority and attack roles. The Su-34 is Russia's newest fighter-bomber meant to replace the Su-24 and Syria is the first operational deployment of this aircraft type. So, all in all, a small contingent which is mainly geared towards the attack role with only nominal fighter top cover, not surprising as the insurgents the Russians are fighting have no air assets of their own to threaten the Russian aircrafts.

Russian Anti-ISIL Air Campaign

All through October and much of November, the Russian aircrafts happily bombed what they insisted were ISIL targets. They authorities claimed that by 30th Nov, exactly 2 months since the commencement of the Russian air campaign, the air force had generated 2300 sorties and bombed 4100 terrorist targets, exceeding in just one month more that what the US and its allies did in a whole year. Of course to be fair the Russians operated from an airbase within Syria and transit time to the targets are very short while the American lead effort have to utilize air bases much further, like Incirlik in Turkey, or even in Europe.

Unfortunately, the Russians have been criticized for bombing the moderate anti-Assad rebels in western Syria rather than concentrating on ISIL strongholds in eastern Syria. They also attacked Turkey affiliated Turkmen rebels along the Syrian-Turkey boarder and that created friction with Ankara. To make matters worse, the Russians have not been exactly mindful of the Turkish airspace when conducting their bombing raids near the boarder. More than once, Russian bombers have strayed across the boundary into Turkish airspace. Despite many warnings that have been issued and rules of engagement ( ROE ) that have been revised, the Russians continued their careless patrols, seemingly oblivious to the Turkish threats to have violating aircraft shot down.

Recent Shoot Down Incidences

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, there has been numerous boarder incidences resulting in the shooting down of aircrafts belonging to both Turkey and Syria. On 22 Jun 2012, a Turkish RF-4E Phantom II reconnaissance jet was shot down by Syria after it unintentionally strayed into Syrian air space. The fighter crashed into the sea and both pilots died. This lead to Turkey revising its ROE stating that it would consider all "military elements" approaching from Syria an enemy threat and would act accordingly.

Turkish Air Force RF-4E serial number 69-7514 is an ex-Luftwaffe Phantom ( German serial 35+67 ) transferred to Turkey in 1993. A similar aircraft was shot down by Syria in 2012. Photo : Turkish Air Force
 On 16 Sep 2013 it was payback time when a Syrian Mi-17 helicopter ventured just one mile into Turkish territory when it was shot down by a Turkish F-16C. It crashed one kilometer inside the Syrian boarder.

The next major incident occurred on 23 Mar 2014 when a Syrian MiG-23 Flogger strayed just a little into Turkey and promptly got hosed down, again by F-16 fighters.

A Russian MiG-23 Flogger armed with AA-7 and AA-8 air-to-air missiles. A similar Syrian aircraft was shot down by the Turks in 2014. Source RSK MiG.

So, as one can observe, these boarder zones are extremely dangerous for aircrafts with both sides being highly on the edge just waiting for the other to commit a small mistake and have an excuse for taking down the opponent. Turkey especially, has been acting tough and had repeatedly made good their threats of shooting down violators of their sovereign air space.

Latest Shooting Down Incident

On 24 Nov 2015, a Russian Air Force Su-24M Fencer bomber operating out of Syria's Hmeimim Air Field was on a bombing mission near the Turkish boarder when according to Turkey, it strayed into Turkish air space to a depth of 2.19km, an incursion that lasted for a mere 17 seconds. It was fired upon by a F-16 fighter when it failed to respond to at least 10 repeated warnings within a 5 minute period to change course. These warnings were of course transmitted on radio over guard frequency. Guard is the aircraft emergency frequency reserved for communications when aircrafts are in distress or during an emergency. The frequencies are 121.5MHz for civilian aircrafts ( aka International air distress or VHF Guard ) and 243.0MHz for military aircrafts ( aka Military Air Distress or UHF Guard ).

Russia however, denied that the Fencer ever ventured into the said Turkish territory, a wedge-shaped piece of land jutting southwards into Syria measuring about 6km at its widest. It maintained that the bomber was returning to Hmeimim and flew within 1 kilometer of the Syrian boarder at all times when it was shot at an altitude of 6000m. Instead Russia counter-claimed that the Turkish F-16 actually made a 2km incursion into Syrian air space when it was attacking the Fencer.

Turkey Defense Ministry's map of Su-24's flight path. Source : Wikipaedia

Russian Defense Ministry's map of the Su-24 flight path. Red line - Su-24, blue line - F-16. Source Wikipaedia

Google Earth Map : the distance between the two red markers denoting the estimated entry and exit points of the Su-24 over Turkish sovereignty is ..... 2.20km!

Just looking at the above maps, I would think that the Russia version is too conveniently neat to be convincing. It could be either doctored or else over simplified. The Turkish version with slightly irregular flight paths are more believable.

What probably happened was the Fencer was over Syrian soil AFTER its brief incursion into Turkey when it was struck by an air-to-air missile fired by the F-16. It would later emerge that the Fencer pilots claimed they did not receive any warnings over the radio and neither did they see the missile coming at them. In other words, they didn't know what hit them.

This could be possible as according to Wikipaedia, the Su-24M's antiquated R-862M VHF/UHF radio may not be able to monitor the military guard frequency without optional equipment which may not have been installed. As the Fencer is a fairly large aircraft with poor visibility from the cockpit, the pilots may not see an incoming missile especially when fired upon from the rear. Being an old aircraft it probably lacks a Missile Approach Warning System ( MAWS ) to guard against heat seeking missiles like the AIM-9X Sidewinder carried by the F-16. Radar Warning Receivers ( RWR ) may or may not provide timely warning against radio-frequency homing missiles as there may be latency between detection and threat identification.

After their plane was hit, both pilots bailed out but were fired upon by Turkmen rebels as they were descending in their parachutes. The flight commander Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Anatolyevich Peshkov was killed by ground fire while his navigator Captain Konstantin Murakhtin survived and was eventually rescued by Russian and Syrian SAR teams. Peshkov was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Russian Federation while Murakhtin and the naval commando who perished in the helicopter attack during the rescue attempt was given the Order of Courage.

The remains of Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Anatolyevich Peshkov, Hero of the Russisn Federation, arriving at Chkalovsky Airfield near Moscow. Ivan really knows how to dress warm and look good, even during times of sorrow. Source : Russian Defense Ministry.

A Case of Intractable Trigger Happiness?

Could this unfortunate downing of the Fencer be avoided? Absolutely! When accidents happen, they usually have multiple factors contributing to the final outcome. In this case both Russia and Turkey could have done more to prevent just such an event.

Firstly, Russia should not have sent its bombers so close to a volatile boarder. Patrolling 1 km from the boundary as claimed is stupid. Ever heard of stand-off ordnance? Even if you have to target insurgents near or at the boarder, it could be done at stand-off distances and Russia has no shortage of stand-off weapons, and was even willing to use cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea 1500km away even though it had absolute air-superiority over Syrian skies.

Secondly, in the event the need to fly near the boarder becomes necessary, at least ensure the aircrafts are equipped with the appropriate communications and navigation equipment and the flight crew properly trained to use them. A military aircraft unable to monitoring Military Guard frequency is just unbelievable, what ever the reason. And the upgraded Su-24M are supposed to be GLONASS equipped.

Nobody in the free world believes what Russia says anymore, especially after their denial about direct intervention in Crimea and eastern Ukraine despite glaring evidences indicating otherwise, like the capture of Russian paratroopers deep inside Ukrainian territory. So the Russian claim about the Su-24 never venturing beyond 1km of the Syrian boarder is probably false. In any case, would Turkey dare to shoot down a Russian combat aircraft flying over Syrian territory without provocation? Rather unlikely, I would say, even though the Turkish Air Force is quite powerful, being the world's third largest operator of the F-16 fighter ( with close to 300 mainly advance block 50 version ) after the US and Israel, it is still no match for the might of the Russian Air Force. So I would take the Turkish data as closer to the truth and it indicated that the Fencer violated Turkish air space for a total of 17 seconds and for a flight distance of just 2.19km.

To shoot down an aircraft after such a brief incursion which in all likelihood could be unintentional, some kind of navigational error or a momentary lapse of concentration on the pilot or navigator's part, can only be labeled as extreme trigger happiness if not murder.

Frankly, there are other less lethal ways to resolve this type of boarder incidences including intercepting and escorting the offending aircraft back to where it should belong. Flying along side and making visual contact when radio communications could not be established might be necessary. If all else failed, firing a short burst of cannon rounds across the bow usually would get the attention of the offending aircraft. Ripping it out of the sky should be the last resort.

Turkish President Erdogan had refused to apologise to Russia after the shooting incident, insisting that Turkey reserves the right of self-defense in the event of violations of territory, which in principle is true. Putin on the other hand, believed that the unprovoked shooting is a stab in the back by a supposed ally in the fight against terror. He was so incensed that he accused Turkey of profiting from the illegal trading of oil with ISIL, even claiming direct involvement of Erdogan's family members, and therefore had a reason to protect ISIL oil infrastructure. The spat has now escalated even further as Putin continues to trade verbal blows with Erdogan piling on one insult after another.

Back Stabbing! Satirical illustration from the Sputnik News Agency's
Japanese website depicting Erdogan sneaking up on the Bear.
The Japanese words read TERORISUTO ( terrorist ).

The Aftermath 

As a consequence of the downing of the Fencer, Russia has immediately taken steps to strengthen its air defense capabilities in Syria.

First, the missile cruiser Moskva ( ex-Slava ), flagship of the Russian Navy Black Sea Fleet, an 11490 ton monster of a warship armed with a total of 64 ( 8 x 8 rotary launchers ) SA-N-6 Grumble long-range surface-to-air missiles was dispatched to the waters off the Syrian coast to provide an air defense umbrella for the Russian strike aircrafts. The SA-N-6, also known as the S-300F Fort, is the navalised version of the S-300P ( NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble ) land based anti-aircraft missile. It has a maximum effective range of 95 miles, enough to cover large portions of northern Syria and southern Turkey.

The Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea Fleet with 8 x 8 SA-N-6 Grumble long-range SAM in a 2009 photo. Wikipaedia

Within three days of the downing of the Fencer, Moscow also deployed its most advanced air defense system to Hmeimem Air Base - the S-400 Triumf ( NATO reporting name SA-21 Growler ) surface-to-air missile. Depending on the missile type used, the maximum range for the S-400 system is up to 400km. Although Russia says that the S-400 systems deployed in Syria are not for sale and would be returned to Russia once their mission is over, we know that Russian words count for nothing. I am quite sure the S-400 will stay put in Syria for a very long time, as its is extremely easy to claim that the mission is not yet over, or just simply provoke another incident or shoot down your own aircraft and blame it on enemy fire or whatever, its been done before.

Two S-400 Triumf transporter-erector-launcher units ( Left and Centre ) protected by what looks like a Pantsir S1 air defense system ( Right ) at Hmeimem Air Base in Syria. Source : Sputnik

Also, for the first time since their deployment in Syria, the Su-34 Fullbacks are conducting their bombing raid carrying ground attack ordnance and air-to-air missiles for self-defense. Russia is making it clear to Turkey that any future downing incidences would be met with immediate and lethal respond. The Fullbacks are basically upsized Flankers with a tremendous increase in range and carrying capacity and although optimized for bombings can be used for air combat as well. Below is a video clip from RT showing the Su-34 with the medium-range R-27 ( AA-10 Alamo ) on centre pylon and the short-range R-73 ( AA-11 Archer ) air-to-air missile on outer pylon, in addition to OFAB-500 dumb bombs on the undercarriage and KAB-500 TV-guided aerial bombs ( with glass covered tip ) at the innermost pylon. These spanking new bombers on their first ever combat deployment deserve a separate coverage / article on their own!

In the near future, Russia will likely increase the number of Su-30SM fighters deployed in Syria to ultimately provide fighter escort to all of its bombing sorties especially those conducted near the Turkish boarder or establish some kind of combat air patrol.

Russia also started economic sanctions against Turkey, with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signing a decree prohibiting the importation of food from Turkey and banning chartered flights between the two countries. The ban would apply to produce like fruits and vegetables, poultry and salt and will commence on 1st Jan 2016. Russian citizens have also been advice to refrain from travelling to Turkey unless absolutely necessary by their foreign ministry.

Meanwhile, the skies over Syria becomes ever more crowded and dangerous, with the Royal Air Force now commencing air strikes against ISIL targets within Syrian territory ....

Russian Air Force Su-24M in a 2009 photo. Wikipaedia

Russian Air Force Su-24M at Latakia, Syria, 2015. Wikipaedia

Su-24M taking off at Hmeimim Air Base. Source Russian Defense Ministry