Those behind the mysterious nighttime air strikes against Islamic terrorists in Libya were finally revealed (on August 26th) as coming from Egypt, using the F-16Es they bought from the United States. As recently as August 24th “unidentified” jets again bombed Islamic terrorist positions in Tripoli. A local leader, general Hiftar, who has long had the support of what’s left of the Libyan Air Force, claimed responsibility for these attacks. No one else (NATO or Arab) had taken responsibility. Foreign aviation experts doubted that the Libyan air force could have made these quite accurate night attacks. The Libyan Air Force never demonstrated this degree of competence when it was fighting the rebels who overthrew Kaddafi in 2011. This may have prompted the U.S. to reveal, two days later, who was behind the attacks, which began on August 21st.
This was not the first time UAE F-16Es had flown over Libya. They did so in 2011, but did not drop bombs. The West has long pressed Arab states to use their extensive air power resources to attack Islamic terrorists in the region, rather than keep asking Western countries to do it for them. The problem here was always that the idea of “Arabs bombing Arabs” was very unpopular. Apparently fear of Islamic terrorism in the neighborhood has changed a lot of minds. Even so the UAE and Egypt kept insisting they were not behind the air attacks.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force is one of the most modern and competent in the region. The UAE recently completed a $110 million to upgrade their 60 Mirage 2000 and 80 F-16 fighters The Mirages got software and fire control upgrades, while the F-16s got some reconnaissance pods and other accessories. This is part of a larger program to expand the capabilities of UAE warplanes. For example, in 2010 the UAE spent $290 million to buy 1,600 U.S. Paveway laser guided bombs for its jet fighters. These were apparently used for the recent, and very accurate, attacks in Libya.
The UAE F-16Es are the most advanced version of the F-16, and have an additional conformal (it blends into the fuselage of the aircraft) fuel tank that gives them a range of 1,600 kilometers. That makes the F-16Es, and their laser guided bombs, capable of reaching any part of Iran, or most parts of Libya if based in Egypt. The UAE itself is 3,700 kilometers from Libya. The Gulf Arabs are taking advantage of the fact that Iran has been unable (because of embargos and budget problems) to upgrade their air force and air defenses over the last three decades. The Iranians have long feared American F-16s carrying smart bombs, but now they have Gulf Arabs equipped to deliver the same kind of punishment. The Gulf Arabs are hoping that this keeps Iran from getting too aggressive.
The UAE occupies much of the western coast of the Persian Gulf, but has a population of less than three million and armed forces of only 65,000. There are 70 million Iranians, and about half a million of them are in the military. While the Iranian air force only has about 200 operational, and quite elderly, combat aircraft, sheer numbers can be encouraging to the Iranians. The UAE has a hundred, much more modern, warplanes, and it uses the training assistance from the U.S. Air Force, to provide a qualitative edge. The Americans also work with UAE commanders to figure out what kind of surprises the Iranians might try to pull. Arab nations fear the Iranians, who have dominated the region for thousands of years, and have a long history of coming up with imaginative tactics, and using them aggressively and often with success. Meanwhile, the Saudis have a larger air force than the UAE, and it's believed that the Iranians must have some kind of surprises planned, to deal with this imbalance in air power.
Despite their use of smart bombs the UAEs 80 "Desert Falcons" (the F-16E) are optimized for air combat. It is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, but with an AESA (phased array) radar and lots of other additional goodies, including excellent ground attack capabilities. The UAE invested $3 billion to develop, build and test the additional features found in the F-16E.
The U.S. F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called 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. The other special version (the Block 60), for the UAE, 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 more 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 manufacturing has plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong.