USAF proves ability to update F-16C software in-flight

For the first time, an Electronic Warfare System (EWS) belonging to a US Air Force (USAF)-operated Lockheed Martin F-16C Block 50 Fighting Falcon received an in-flight software update during a recent test sortie from Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada.

The USAF announced the successful completion of this milestone on July 31, adding that the sortie was part of an Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS) demonstration at the Nevada base. During the flight, the F-16C updated its Mission Data File with information transmitted from hundreds of miles away using its existing beyond-line-of-sight satellite communication system.

84th TES F-16C taxis before flight test at Eglin AFB 14-06-21 [USAF/Tech Sgt John Raven]
Lt Col Zachary Probst taxis an 84th TES F-16C Block 50 Fighting Falcon out of an hardened aircraft shelter at Eglin AFB, Florida, prior to a test flight on June 14, 2021. USAF/Tech Sgt John Raven

The multi-role fighter received the update from the Hill Software Integration Laboratory – located at Hill AFB, Utah – before processing it using custom-developed Center Display Unit software and loading the new data into its ALQ-213 Countermeasures Signal Processor. The USAF states that this “proof-of-concept test demonstrated the ability for a pilot to properly correlate a previously unknown electronic threat in near real-time.”

Discussing the recent test flight, Col Tim Bailey – F-16 System program manager with the USAF – said: “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 modifications required. This is a significant first step!”

This technology was developed by a team, comprising subject matter experts from the F-16 System Program Office; 309th Software Engineering Group; 53rd Test Wing and an undisclosed number of associated agencies. “What began as a bar-napkin idea – real-time software updates to F-16s – is developing into a programme that could one day [be fielded] across the F-16 fleet. The next step is to integrate high-speed internet into the F-16, thereby allowing F-16 pilots access to data from a classified cloud,” the USAF added.

Lt Col Zachary Probst, a flight test pilot and commander of the 84th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), said: “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.”

Ultimately, the USAF plans to integrate the ABMS software into its entire F-16C/D fleet, which the service states will improve the long-term relevance of the multi-role fighter, while greatly enhancing its capabilities. The ABMS platform intends to allow US military assets in the battlespace to connect and integrate with the other US Department of Defense, USAF and US Space Force capabilities.