With the U.S. Air National Guard planning to equip less than a fourth of its F-16s with new radars, a key homeland defense official said Feb. 15 that she will keep an eye on the upgraded fighter jets to prevent them from being overtaxed.

“I’m working very closely with the Air Force on this,” said Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, the head of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command. “I will look closely and ensure that not only do we not rely heavily on just those” modified F-16s but that her team knows what the long-term plan to transition to the new F-35 looks like.

Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, NORTHCOM/NORAD commander (Air Force photo)
Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, NORTHCOM/NORAD commander (Air Force photo)

Robinson said she is “grateful” for the new radars, which are designed to enhance the F-16’s ability to detect and engage advanced cruise missiles fired at the homeland.

Her comments before the Senate Armed Services Committee came in response to Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), who asked whether the Air National Guard should upgrade all of its 300-plus F-16s with the advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. Currently, 72 of those F-16s are slated to receive the Northrop Grumman [NOC]-built radar.

“Our worry is that we’ll put real heavy wear and tear on those specific modified aircraft and that we’ll only modify a handful of the aircraft, thus really wearing out that particular group,” Rounds said. His state hosts the Guard’s 114th Fighter Wing, which flies F-16s

Rounds said the radar upgrade will cost about $2.1 million per jet, which is “probably a pretty good buy.”

Also at the hearing, Robinson expressed concern about Russia’s development of bomber- and submarine-launched cruise missiles that fly farther and are harder to detect than legacy missiles. She noted that the United States and Canada are conducting an analysis of alternatives to improve their ability to see such threats.

Robinson testified that she is “100 percent confident” that the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system can defend the United States against long-range ballistic missiles fired from North Korea. But she said interceptor and sensor improvements, such as the Long Range Discrimination Radar planned for Alaska, will be needed to stay ahead of the threat.

Robinson was joined at the witness table by Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the head of U.S. Southern Command, who testified that he still lacks enough ships and aircraft to stop illegal drugs from flowing into the United States. He made similar comments before the panel in April (Defense Daily, April 6, 2017).

Tidd also testified that SOCOM receives only about 8 percent of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) support it asks for. He said that budget uncertainty is a key contributor to the shortfall. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that other commands have reported similar ISR shortages.