After winning a landmark program that could lead to many billions of dollars of business, it would be a shame to let the schedule slip. With that in mind, BAE Systems has begun working on the modernization of 134 South Korean F-16s—without a contract in its pocket.

The agreement should be signed by the end of the year, says BAE, which has pulled off the considerable feat of elbowing into a business that F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin once regarded as its turf. Raytheon, another F-16 interloper and the major supplier in BAE's prime contract, has meanwhile lined up 20% local production of its RACR electronically scanned radar. The U.S. company also says its deals are close to signature.

BAE decided it was wise to commence work such as software development and system design before money from the South Korean program is available, says John Bean, vice president for global fighter programs in BAE's aerospace division and a former senior executive in Lockheed Martin's F-16 business. The development phase should be complete within four years of the signing of the contract between the U.S. and South Korean governments; at that point, modification work should begin on the first aircraft, which will be used for trials.

Deliveries of upgraded aircraft are planned to begin within six months of the completion of development, with the last of the fighters back in service within three years. That aligns closely with the 2021 target for completion of the contract that was reported last year when BAE was announced as the prime contractor.

The program is remarkable as the first comprehensive F-16 upgrade not handled by Lockheed Martin or a local supplier. The market is important because there are so many F-16s in service; they cannot all be replaced soon and are lasting much longer than planned. Their longevity is partly a result of likely life extensions to at least 10,000 hr. from the designed 8,000 hr., but mostly because air forces are flying them for only about 200 hr. a year, according to BAE. Initially, 350 hr. a year was the expected norm.

Ken Murphy, of Raytheon's tactical airborne systems business, estimates that 1,500 F-16s are candidates for modernization, not including those of South Korea, Taiwan and the U.S., all of which have programs underway.

South Korea's F-16 Block 52 aircraft, called KF-16s locally, have flown 4,000 hr. each, on average. If they can last for 10,000 hr., and clock up only 200 hr. a year, then they can fly until the early 2040s—if they will still be competitive as combat aircraft then. They are reportedly due for retirement in 2038.

BAE will not disclose the price of its contract with Seoul, although South Korean media quoted a value of 1.8 trillion won ($1.8 billion) last year when the Defense Acquisition Program Administration made its choice of prime contractor. The figure included the cost of equipment from other suppliers and local installation work. The upgrade is treated as a U.S. government-foreign military sale.

In general, the program will replace equipment that is costly to maintain or does not support new weapons, says BAE. Above all, that means installing a new radar. South Korea chose the RACR over Northrop Grumman's SABR, which will go into upgraded U.S. F-16s. KF-16s are currently fitted with the Northrop Grumman APG-68(v)5 mechanically scanned radar.

At the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition late last month, Bean noted that new radars should last for the remaining service lives of the airframes without major repairs. The aircraft will also receive new advanced cockpits, including helmet-mounted displays, an advanced data link, improved satellite-positioning receivers, new mission computers, new radar warning receivers and new targeting sensors, either the Lockheed Martin Sniper or Northrop Grumman Litening. A decision on the last item will likely be made in 3-6 months. There will also be a new mission-planning system on the ground.

Structural refurbishment is not in the work package; South Korea already has a program for that, although it may be sensible to coordinate it with the avionics upgrade, adding maybe a month to the time taken for each aircraft.

The upgrade generally parallels the U.S. Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite project but with different suppliers. The U.S. chose Lockheed Martin, which selected Northrop Grumman for the radar. Korea Aerospace Industries and its predecessor company, Samsung Aerospace, built the F-16s in 1997-2004. South Korea also has older F-16s that will not be upgraded and appear to be slated for replacement by the indigenous KF-X fighter.

Samsung Thales and its suppliers will build 20% of the RACR, says Raytheon. The manufacturer is also looking for South Korean suppliers, not necessarily Samsung Thales, to help make the radar warning receiver.

South Korean involvement in RACR manufacturing will be limited by U.S. export rules, however. Under U.S. policy, “none of the critical technology is going to be transferred,” says Murphy. The U.S. tightly controls the technology of radars fitted with active, electronically scanned arrays (AESA), such as the RACR. Raytheon describes the sensor as a repackaging of the APG-79 and APG-82 used by the U.S. Navy and Air Force, respectively.

RACR parts made in South Korea will include the power supply, cables and mounting racks, Murphy says. Know-how will be transferred for maintenance procedures that will be done in South Korea. That includes diagnosing faulty modules but not fixing them, says Raytheon, which will repair the parts in the U.S.

In the negotiations over support arrangements, South Korea tried but failed to persuade the U.S. to divulge more RACR technology than is needed if modules are to be repaired in the U.S., says an industry official unconnected with Raytheon. South Korea is working on its own AESA technology. Raytheon says the agreements to supply the RACR, following its selection in April, are now being finalized, along with arrangements for suppliers.

“We now get to expand our supplier base,” says James Hvizd of Raytheon's space and airborne systems business, noting that the know-how does not have to flow one way; Samsung Thales and its suppliers may have a thing or two to teach Raytheon in the manufacturing process.

Part of Raytheon's development effort is in the BAE Systems mission computer. Hvizd would not go into details but confirms that the work is related to the computer's integration with the RACR and radar-warning receiver. Since the latter is digital, the computer can rapidly manage the switching of it and the radar. The process, needed to ensure that the active sensor does not jam the passive one, affects the performance of both.

The South Korean contract will largely cover the nonrecurring costs of developing the RACR, says Hvizd. BAE Systems expects the program to completely cover its nonrecurring costs for the wider F-16 upgrade. Although that should help both companies as they bid for new F-16 upgrade programs, their competitors must be in largely the same position thanks to U.S. and Taiwanese modernization efforts. Industry officials generally see Singapore and Turkey as the next most likely customers for F-16 modernizations.