Warplanes: Turkey Upgrades its F-16s Because NATO Won’t


December 29, 2022: Turkey has been unable to buy F-35 fighters because they insisted on buying Russian S400 air defense systems that are designed to defeat NATO F-35s. In October Turkey was refused an order for 40 new F-16s and upgrade kits for 80 of the 263 F-16s that are the core of their fighter force. The U.S. turned them down because of illegal Turkish activities in Libya that made possible Turkish claims to offshore waters controlled by Greece. Turkey has also been threatening to attack disputed Greek held islands in self-defense. Turkey has angered a lot of American legislators and government officials with their bad behavior and refusal to change. Turkey had enough defenders in the American government to get their F-16 upgrades request included in the 2023 defense budget. That program can still be blocked.

Mindful of that possibility, back in August Turkey announced an F-16 upgrade program. In December Turkey announced an F-16 upgrade using Turkish resources. This upgrade includes airframe upgrades that will extend the flight time of the F-16s from 8,000 to 12,000 flight hours. Turkey is also installing new cockpits that incorporate improved electronics manufactured in Turkey. In early December it was announced that Turkey would include a new Turkish developed AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar in the F-16 upgrade. The Turkish AESA claims to be similar in performance to the American APG-83 that is used in the F-22 and F-35 as well as the latest model of the F-16. Turkey would not release the cost of this upgrade program because of security reasons and that probably means that it is a more expensive and more uncertain upgrade the Turks would get from the United States, Turkey sees any additional cost as a good investment because Turkey has been a major center for upgrading F-16s and originally wanted the new Turkish AESA for its new, larger 1.45 ton UAV, the TB3. This UAV is designed to operate from Turkey’s first aircraft carrier, that was originally supposed to use F-35B VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) stealth fighters. The TB3 has folding wings and a much more powerful compact turbo-diesel engine that enables it to take off and land on the short deck of the Turkish carrier, which looks line acc amphibious support ships that all look like small aircraft carriers and usually carry only helicopters to carry the thousand soldiers or marines to shore. The Turkish developed engine was recently delivered. The Turkish AESA is taking longer.

For over a decade, more and more air forces have been adopting AESA radars for the warplanes. Now AESA radars have become standard equipment in modern warplanes. Before that the only nations putting AESA in their jet fighters were those that could afford them, and appreciate their power and versatility. An American F-15C jet fighter began upgrading to AESA in 1999. This is largely because AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical (a small dish that moves around inside a dome) radar. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper (to buy) mechanically scanned radar.

AESA type radars have been around a long time, and popular mainly for their ability to deal with lots of targets simultaneously, and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there. For a long time, AESA was also a lot more expensive, and less reliable, than older radar technologies. That gradually changed and AESA now has the edge in affordability. Now more uses have been found for AESA, which has developed into more than just an improved radar. AESA is now used for electronic defensive and offensive warfare as well as becoming increasingly difficult for enemy radar warning detectors to detect. This capability makes the F-22 and F-35 more stealthy and lethal against enemy fighters.

AESA radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. An AESA radar made the JSTARS aircraft possible, as it enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. That was followed by a smaller MP-RTIP AESA radar for the RQ-4 UAV that can also spot smaller objects on the ground. As a result, with the RQ-4 UAV equipped with AESA, the U.S. Air Force has a choice between extending the life of the E-8 aircraft, or replacing them with the UAVs.

While AESA makes fighters much more effective, it's the many other uses of AESA that make this technology so attractive to warplane designers. For example, the U.S. Air Force has been equipping some of its fighters with electronic ray type weapons. Not quite the death ray of science fiction fame, but an electric ray type weapon none the less. In this case, the weapon uses the high-powered microwave (HPM) effects found in AESA radar technology. AESA is able to focus a concentrated beam of radio energy that could scramble electronic components of a distant target. Sort of like the EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) put out by nuclear weapons. The air force won’t, for obvious reasons, discuss the exact kill range of the of the various models of AESA radars on American warplanes like the F-35 and F-22. However, it is known that range in this case is an elastic thing. Depending on how well the target electronics are hardened against EMP, more electrical power will be required to do damage. Moreover, the electrical power of the various AESA radars in service varies as well. The air force has said that the larger AESA radars it is developing would be able to zap cruise missile guidance systems up to 180 kilometers away. For most AESA equipped aircraft, the stealthiness of AESA is more important because it enables American fighters, and not just the F-22 and F-35, to detect and fire on hostile aircraft before their radars or radar warning receivers have detected their lethal foe.




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