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Like an iPhone: Air Force F-16 Fighter Get a Software Update in Flight

Image: Creative Commons.

Although this doesn’t sound like a big deal, the ability to revive real-time upgrades is crucially important. Here’s why.

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For the first time, an Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon successfully received, installed, and flew with a software update that it received while in flight. The news, detailed in an Air Force press release, was part of an Advanced Battle Management System evaluation.

During the test flight, an F-16 received a software update “from hundreds of miles away” with the aid of a satellite communications system. It allowed the test pilot flying the F-16 to “properly correlate a previously unknown electronic threat in near real-time.”

“The ingenuity and skills of the Flight Test and Program Teams enabled a Viper to land with better capabilities than it took off with,” explained an F-16 System program manager about the recent inflight test. “This techno-marvel was done with existing systems in much of the Viper fleet, with no hardware mod[ifications] required. This is a significant first step!”


Although the initial inflight software installation involved a relatively small amount of data, in the future, the ability to get the latest version of flight-related software to warfighters in near real-time is just an initial push toward a much broader capability. Electronic warfare is an inherently cat-and-mouse game, where the latest in technology and software is akin to an ace in the hole — as long as pilots can quickly utilize it. 

The information relayed to the F-16 updated the ALQ-213 Countermeasures Signal Processor, an electronic warfare and countermeasure unit. The unit can respond to specific threats in various ways, including through the use of chaff and flares, decoys, radar warning signals, and electronic warfare jammers.

By updating the ALQ-213 Countermeasures Signal Processor with the most up-to-date data set of threats and countermeasures, F-16s — and other warplanes capable of on-the-fly updates — are better armed and better protected.

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U.S. Air Force Col. Mike Manning, the commander of the 169th Fighter Wing, and Col. David Meyer, the commander of the 169th Operations Group, both with the South Carolina Air National Guard, receive fuel from a KC-135R Stratotanker aircraft assigned to the 134th Air Refueling Wing, Tennessee Air National Guard while flying an F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft over Eastover, S.C., Nov. 12, 2013. The F-16 was flown back to South Carolina from temporary duty at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Caycee Watson, U.S. Air National Guard/Released).


“We believe this is the first time a fighter aircraft has received a software update and gained new capability all while in flight,” a flight test pilot and commander explained. “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.”

So while the Air Force’s on-the-fly update capability is still certainly in its infancy, the ability to update airplanes in real-time and during the heat of battle could put an important new arrow in the flying branch’s quiver.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson, a defense journalist based in Europe and holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy. He lives in Berlin and writes on U.S. and Russian foreign and defense policy, German politics and culture.

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