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Riding the Wave(form)

At Shaw Air Force Base in sunny Sumter, S.C., the pilots and maintainers of the 77th Fighter Squadron “Gamblers” are putting a new twist on an old mission, training to kill air defenses with the latest American version of the ubiquitous F-16 Viper.
The Gamblers fly around 20 1990s-vintage F-16CJ Block 50s, the model of the Viper optimized for Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, or SEAD. They’re radar killers, Wild Weasels, descendents of the F-105s and F-4s that fistfought SAMs over Vietnam and the Gulf. When the small force of highly-specialized two-seat F-4G Wild Weasels was retired in 1996 and single-seat F-16CJs procured to take over the job, critics said it was a step back for SEAD.
And they were right — for a while. In its early days, the F-16CJ was limited to getting azimuth-only targeting data on enemy radars using its Harm Targeting System (HTS) pod. Without the ability to determine range, HTS-equipped Wild Weasels could only lob a HARM missile in the general direction of the bad guy’s radar and hope for the best.
That was then. Almost a decade after it inherited the Wild Weasel mission, the F-16CJ is finally getting the tools it needs to equal and surpass the F-4G as a SEAD platform. These tools — the Link-16 datalink, the Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), color displays and a major software upgrade — are being added to all 650 or so F-16C Block 40/42/50/52s under the $1-billion Common Capability Implimentation Program (CCIP). Paired with GPS and HTS, CCIP enables F-16CJs to share a bewildering variety of data with a wide range of platforms including other fighters, AWACS, J-STARS, Rivet Joint recce planes, Aegis cruisers, Patriot missile batteries and more. The key to this data-sharing is the Link-16’s encryptable, frequency-hopping, high-volume waveform. Basically, Link-16 is an internet in the sky, and it’s revolutionizing the way jet fighters wage war.
The new ability to combine off-board data with their own means the Wild Weasels can now pinpoint the locations of radars, track them with their helmet sights, shoot HARMs accurately and even drop JDAMs — a new level of destructive capability that has necessitated some new terminology: Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses, or DEAD.
When CCIP wraps in around five years, the USAF will have 650 modern and flexible fighters capable of a full range of missions, from air defense to close air support to SEAD/DEAD. While the fighters are capable of swinging roles, the pilots will continue specializing, meaning the Gamblers will keep focusing on SEAD even though their jets can do much more.
With several hundred older F-16s slated for retirement in the next couple of years, some observers are worried that the Air Force will be stretched thin. The Air Force counters that the remaining fighters will more than make up for the cuts with greatly improved capability. While cuts can go only so far (you still need a four-ship flight to get anything accomplished, regardless of the individual jets’ strengths), every indication is that the Air Force is performing a minor miracle, steadily increasing combat capability with a smaller and smaller fleet of airplanes. Research into new waveforms promises even more miracles.
–David Axe

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Joal November 15, 2005 at 11:36 am

Now we can fly without fear of insurgent SAM sites.

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Jober November 15, 2005 at 3:54 pm

David,
Great article, thank you. If I might nitpick a moment, the F-16′s official name is “Fighting Falcon” or often just “Falcon;” “Viper” is the unofficial name given to the SEAD-specialized variants (just like the F-4 was the “Phantom,” but the F-4s that knocked out SAM sites in Vietnam were called “Wild Weasals.”)
It seems clear to me that with the advent of lightweight, advanced avionics and new, multi-mission capable hardware like the F/A-22, the USAF is on the verge of extending it’s overall capabilities by a staggering degree. We are rapidly reaching “escape velocity” in terms of the relative effectiveness of our Air Force vs. that of just about any other country on the planet. The advent of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle technology will only widen that gap even further; it’s not hard to imagine that in a few decades we could have unmanned, remotely-piloted warfighting aircraft in the sky, controlled from afar by pilots in a bunker or trailer hundreds (or thousands?) of miles from the conflict. Already we have smart bombs that make destroying a particular target about as easy as sending an email; imagine if we could have that capability without even leaving our own borders?

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fap-85 October 31, 2008 at 12:46 pm

LA LOCK MARTIN, ES UNA COMPANY, FUERA DE SERIE PRODUCIENDO LOS F-16 F-22 F-35, ETC, ETC, NO ENTIENDO PORQUE EL GOBIERNO DE EE.UU NO PERMITE LA VENTA DE ESOS F-22, A SUB AMERICA EN ESPECIAL A PERU, YA QUE USA, TIENE SUS F-35 Y 37, PARA EMPEZAR LOS EE.UU SOLO LE VENDEN AL PAIS DE CHILE, Y NO A PERU, NO SE Q PROVECHO SACAN ALIANDOSE LOS AMERICANOS A CHILE , SI ESE PAIS NO PRODUCE NADA ESA TIERRA DE LOS CHILENOS ES ARIDA LO UNICO Q TIENEN ES COBRE GRACIAS A Q INVADIERON A PERU EN 1879 ESE COBRE ES DE LOS PERUANOS PORQUE LOS ESTADOS UNIDOS NO SE ALIA A PERU, SI TENEMOS TODO SOMOS RICOS EN TODOS LOS MINERALES PETROLEO GAS, DE NUESTRA SELVA ES RICA DE AHI SALE LA MEDICINA DEL MUNDO Y ESO Q FALTA EXPLOTAR MAS DELA MITAD, TENEMOS HARTO URANIO, NUESTRO MAR ES EL MAS RICO EN EL MUNDO, TODOS VIENEN A PESCAR EN NUESTRO MAR TODA NUESTRA TIERRA ES FERTIL, SOLO NOS FALTA TECNOLOGIA Q ALGUN DIA DEJAREMOS DE COMPRAR TECNOLOGIA SI NUESTRO GOBIERNO INVIERTE EN NUESTROS CIENTIFICOS EN LA UNIVERSIDAD DE LA UNI Q ES UNICA EN AMERICA , Y ESE ALAN GARCIA Q ESPERA PARA COMPRAR NUESTRO SATELITE,YA ES HORA Q LOS AMERICANOS PIENSEN BIEN CON QUIEN LE COMBIENE ALIARSE CON PERU O CHILE, NUESTRO PAIS PERU HA SIDO BENDECIDO POR DIOS Y EL DIABLO NOS A DADO A NUESTROS GOBERNANTES Q SOLOM SIRVEN PARA ROBAR

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Gary Ericson January 21, 2010 at 8:52 pm

This is a great discussion. It will be interesting to see what other people think about this and commment.Wireless Internet Provider

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