Test milestones reached at Northern Lightning

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt Lindsey Heflin
  • 53rd Wing
F-16s from the 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron and Operational Flight Program Combined Test Force returned to Eglin AFB August 20, 2021, after completing a successful capstone exercise in Wisconsin.  The two squadrons worked hand-in-hand during Northern Lightning 2021 where the team introduced the latest F-16 software in a Large Force Exercise, and accomplished multiple test objectives including the integration of Lockheed Martin’s Legion Pod equipped with Infrared Search and Tracking System technology.
“We were able to achieve what usually takes three to six months of testing in a matter of weeks,” said Lt Col. Jeremy Castor, F-16 sensors program manager, OFP CTF. “This has all to do with the collaboration that took place between the Lockheed Martin team and the operators out in the field who would test the infrared search and track technology during every sortie then retract the data and re-program the pod to better equip the warfighter in our combat scenarios.” 
Northern Lightning was the first time engineers received real world data on all the players within the exercise, with over 64 aircraft participating in 18 combat representative scenarios. The data received was invaluable to the advancement of F-16 combat capability according to Castor. 
“This exercise sets a baseline in how we want to do software development in the future,” said Castor. “The more data received and the more scenarios the pod is put in, the faster it will evolve and the performance of the pod will increase for all aircraft that use the Legion Pod.”
The OFP CTF also worked alongside the F-16 system program office and Northrop Grumman to test the Next Generation Electronic Warfare suite.  Northrop modified their Flying Test Bed, a Canadair Regional Jet equipped with an F-16’s Active Electronically Scanned Array radar with NGEW, which includes a new Digital Radar Warning Receiver, state of the art antennas and processors, and a digital frequency memory internal jammer. 

“During Northern Lightning we gained valuable insight on NGEW capabilities and obtained over 170 test points against both air and ground emitters,” said Lt Col. Stephen Graham, F-16 electronic warfare test director, OFP CTF.  “We are one step closer to installing the first NGEW suite on an Eglin F-16 in less than one year.”

Northern Lightning set the environment to demonstrate NGEW’s compatibility with AESA while identifying jamming threats across the Radio Frequency spectrum. 

“There is a strong push to improve Electronic Protection for the F-16 against modern adversaries,” said Graham. “NL21 allowed for both an RF dense environment while permitting targeted testing before, during, and after LFE fights.”

Another pod that went through operational assessment during Northern Lightning is known as the Angry Kitten Combat Pod, developed by Georgia Tech Research Institute. This digital radio frequency memory pod has the ability to assess and respond to a threat, and modify jamming signals as needed.  During the exercise, teams were able to evaluate interoperability and identify improvements needed to convert Angry Kitten from an aggressor pod to a combat pod.
One of the most important outcomes of Northern Lightning was the graduation exercise of the F-16 Mission Modular Computer M7.3 which hosts the new software for the jet. The next step will be releasing the software to the Combat Air Forces where the F-16 fleet as a whole will receive an update in its avionics and weapons system with enhanced capabilities to improve air-to-air capabilities and targeting accuracy, enabling new combat capabilities.
“The F-16 is rapidly improving its combat capability to stay relevant in a near-peer fight and the dedication of the F-16 test community is evident in accelerating change to the CAF,” said Capt Michael Mclain, chief of standardization and evaluation, 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron.
LFEs, such as Northern Lightning, provide an opportunity to test the latest software and hardware being developed for the F-16 community. They are essential to validate new technologies and tactics that are relevant in a combat representative environment.