The U.S. Air Force has increased the number of F-16s it wants to refurbish to 1,018. Last year the plan was to refurbish a few hundred of its 22 ton F-16 fighters because their replacement, the 31 ton F-35, was not arriving in time. So far 11 F-35s have been built and another 19 are to be built this year. That’s too slow to deal with the number of F-16s that are growing too old to fly. The air force is doing a similar refurb on 175 F-15C interceptors. It may take a decade or more for F-35 production to get to the point where most F-16s can be replaced. Until then, the F-16s must be ready to get the jobs done.
This is one of several reasons why many nations upgrade their F-16s. Some of these nations are holding off on ordering F-35s (or cancelling existing orders), either because of the high price or doubts about how good it will be. Aircraft manufacturing and maintenance companies see a huge market for such upgrades. Half or more of the 3,000 F-16s currently in service could be refurbished and upgraded to one degree or another. That’s over $25 billion in business over the next decade or so.
The F-35 began development in the 1990s, and was supposed to enter service in 2011. That has since slipped to 2017, or the end of the decade, depending on who you believe. Whichever date proves accurate, many F-16 users have a problem. Their F-16s are old and year by year more of them become too old to operate.
No matter how late the F-35 is, the U.S. Air Force now plans to refurbish at least a thousand Block 40 and 50 F-16s. The work will concentrate on extending the life of the airframe, plus some electronics upgrades. The air force does this sort of thing frequently to all aircraft models. It's called SLEP (Service Life Extension Program), and this one is special only because it concentrates on very old aircraft and is intended to keep these birds viable for another 8-10 years.
Many air forces are finding that it’s more cost-effective to upgrade via new electronics and missiles and, as needed, refurbishing engines and airframes on elderly existing fighters, rather than buying new aircraft. This is especially the case if the new electronics enable the use of smart bombs or more capable air-to-air missiles. One of the more frequently upgraded older fighters is the American F-16. Even the U.S. Air Force, the first and still largest user of F-16s, had always planned to do this with some of its F-16s.
The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. But advances in engineering, materials, and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to those areas have flown over a thousand hours a year more than what they would in peacetime. The current planned SLEP will extend F-16C flight hours to 10,000 or more.
The F-16 has proven to be remarkably adaptable and is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. The most numerous F-16 is the C model. The first version of this, the F-16C Block 25, entered service in 1984. The original F-16, as the F-16A Block 1, entered service in 1978. While most F-16s still in service are the F-16C, there are actually six major mods, identified by block number (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60) plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. Another special version (the Block 60) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is called the F-16E. The F-16D is a two seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components (five engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare gear, five radars, and many other mechanical, software, cockpit, and electrical mods).
The F-16 is the most numerous post-Cold War jet fighter, with over 4,200 built and still in production. During The Cold War Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s, but since 1991, warplane production has plummeted about 90 percent. Since the end of the Cold War the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going.
The F-16 can also function as a bomber and ground attack aircraft (although not as effectively as the air force experts would have you believe, especially compared to the A-10). It can carry four tons of bombs and has been very effective using smart bombs. In air-to-air combat F-16s have shot down 69 aircraft so far, without losing anything to enemy warplanes. Not bad for an aircraft that was originally designed as a cheaper alternative to the heavier and more expensive F-15.
Although the F-35 is designed to replace the F-16, many current users will probably keep their F-16s in service for a decade or more. The F-16 gets the job done, reliably and inexpensively. Why pay more for new F-35s if your potential enemies can be deterred with F-16s. This becomes even more likely as the F-35 is delayed again and again. Finally, the upgrade is a lot cheaper, costing less than $20 million per aircraft, compared to over $100 million for a new F-35. If your potential enemies aren’t upgrading to something like that, a refurbed F-16 will do.