Lockheed Martin's announcement of the F-16V (for Viper) at the Singapore air show was a surprise move. While the company was naturally expected to respond to the U.S. Air Force's need to upgrade F-16s, what's interesting is the decision to re-brand the veteran fighter and bundle the USAF upgrade with a campaign for future sales and international upgrades for all variants.
The announcement also follows several years in which the F-16 was barely visible at all at trade shows, except in the Middle East and (until last year) India.
One motivation is to generate new business to fill the hole left by cutbacks in F-35 production. Production for Morocco, Egypt, Oman and Iraq is expected to support F-16 deliveries through 2015, and Lockheed Martin is looking for new opportunities that would carry the line through 2016-17.
The core of the upgrade is the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, but the F-16V will also get a modernized cockpit and a new mission computer (the latter being almost essential to handle the AESA).
In a break from F-16 history, Lockheed Martin may give customers a choice of radars. The USAF, Taiwan and Korea are all looking at large upgrade programs and the market would likely be large enough for two contenders -- which comes down to incumbent Northrop Grumman's SABR or Raytheon's RACR, unless Elbit or Selex Galileo can overcome likely US resistance and gain a toehold in the market.
That move could be a parallel to the F-16's electronic warfare options: because the USAF never put an internal active jammer on the jet, Fort Worth set up an integration laboratory and opened the doors to all comers, with the result that export F-16s today fly with a bewildering variety of EW systems -- as witness this Israeli-equipped RSAF F-16 at the show.