Game Changer: U.S. Air Force Can Now Update Its Fighters’ Electronic Warfare Systems Mid-Flight and Mid-Battle

The U.S. Air Force has reported that it recently demonstrated a potentially revolutionary new capability to send updates for its aircraft’s electronic warfare (EW) systems during flight, with this being tested successfully on an F-16C Fighting Falcon. T

service said that this test represented an important first step towards developing a more expansive EW capability that could benefit its Cognitive Electronic Warfare concept - namely to utilise advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to rapidly develop and deploy improved electronic warfare capabilities, including new countermeasures, to respond to emerging threats. 

The F-16 is the most widely used fighter in the U.S. Air Force and by U.S.-aligned states, with over 4,500 produced and the aircraft having been in service since 1978. 

Although the fighter, and the F-16C variant in particular, are increasingly considered obsolete, delays to the succeeding F-35 program and the possibility of deep cuts to F-35 orders means that the F-16 could see service for more than two decades more than initially intended. 

Improved electronic warfare systems provide a means to allow increasingly obsolete fighters like the F-16 to remain viable and survivable against medium and possibly even high end threats. 

The F-16 has been successively equipped with more advanced electronic warfare systems over time, with the latest F-16 Block 70/72 variants having fifth generation level systems. 

The test to update the F-16’s electronic warfare systems in flight was conducted at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, and involved personnel at the Software Integration Laboratory at Hill Air Force Base in Utah located 375 miles northeast of Nellis.

 The 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron successfully updated Mission Data File for the Countermeasures Signal Processor in the AN/ALQ-213 Electronic Warfare Management System (EWMS) on the F-16C from a very long distance - a capability with potentially very significant implications in battle. 

The ability to do so is particularly valuable as it could allow squadrons to very quickly adapt to enemy electronic warfare countermeasures, for example if tackling an enemy air defence system built around the S-400 or HQ-9B long range systems, with units being able to employ more kinds of electronic attacks and test for more potential weaknesses than if they needed to return to base to update their EW systems. While the F-16 itself is unlikely to be at the forefront of future U.S. efforts to neutralise enemy defences or tackle high end enemy fighters, technologies tested on the fighter can later be applied to the F-35, F-15 and the upcoming F-X sixth generation fighter. T

F-X is expected to emphasize and rely much more heavily on electronic warfare than any preceding American fighter. 

Speaking regarding the implications of the latest test, the Air Force F-16 System Program Manager Colonel Tim Bailey observed: “The ingenuity and skills of the Flight Test and Program Teams enabled a Viper to land with better capabilities than it took off with. 

This techno-marvel was done with existing systems in much of the Viper fleet, with no hardware mod. required. This is a significant first step!” An official statement from the Air Force itself referred to the test as a “proof-of-concept test [which] demonstrated the ability for a pilot to properly correlate a previously unknown electronic threat in near real-time.” Commander of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Zachary Probst, stated regarding the test: “We believe this is the first time a fighter aircraft has received a software update and gained new capability all while in flight… This is a big deal. 

There’s a tactical need to be able to rapidly update software, especially mission data files because that’s what ties into our ability to identify, find, and defend ourselves against enemy threat systems.” Of all the weapons tests conducted by the U.S. Air Force over the past 18 months, including a second failed test of a new hypersonic missile on July 28, this important step towards developing the Cognitive Electronic Warfare concept into a reality may well have the most serious consequences for the security of America’s potential adversaries such as China, North Korea and Russia. 

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