Warplanes: F-16 First Flew 50 Years Ago


January 30, 2024: The American F-16 fighter first flew fifty years ago, and the Americans didn’t realize how many F-16 fans were pilots in the Ukrainian Air Force. Currently some Ukrainian pilots have been training in F-16s and deliveries of dozens of F-16s will begin in the next few months. F-16s have been the world’s most popular post-Cold War combat aircraft. Communist governments and the Soviet Union collapsed by 1991 and eastern European nations, recently under communist rule, wanted to join NATO so the Russians, Communist or not, would be less likely to return. During the last three decades these former Communist controlled nations joined NATO and have been replacing their Russian weapons with Western models.

The Ukraine War that began in early 2022 was often a desperate battle for Ukrainians. Nevertheless, Russia suffered heavier casualties. Two years later the Russians have lost 370,000 soldiers and 17,000 armored vehicles, a third of them tanks. So far Russia has lost 20,000 thousand artillery systems which includes howitzers, large caliber mortars and MLRS (Multiple Launcher Rocket Systems). Ukrainian losses have been nearly half as much, but Ukraine is one third the size of Russia.

Aircraft losses have also been heavy, with over 600 manned and unmanned aircraft lost by both sides. Currently Russia has 1,100 jet fighters and strike aircraft. Russia is a large country and most of these aircraft are stationed in distant areas of Russia with about a third of the aircraft concentrated against Ukraine. Russia started this war with a larger air force than Ukraine had. Russia has an aircraft production industry. While crippled by sanctions, Russia can still build some new warplanes each year and repair and refurbish even more of them.

Ukraine also produces aircraft, but those production facilities have been the target of many attacks and operate at low levels of productivity. Ukraine depends on its NATO allies for replacement aircraft. Eastern European NATO nations once used Russian warplanes and are phasing them out in favor of Western models, like the F-16. These NATO nations have already donated dozens of their older Russian warplanes to Ukraine. This is done as they receive newer Western aircraft, mainly F-16s.

Ukraine noted this and asked for preference to receive F-16s but had to convince the Americans that they could quickly adapt to them. Ukrainian MiG and Sukhoi pilots demonstrated that they could quickly adapt to F-16s.

Meanwhile, Ukraine has lots of experience with MiG-29s and Su-27’s, and uses them extensively. Some have been modified to handle Western anti-radar missiles as well as GPS guided bombs. While the Ukrainians have made good use of their MiG-29s, they always wanted Western aircraft, especially F-16s.

The F-16 and MiG-29 are both considered 4th generation, 1970s and 80s, aircraft. The 5th generation, so far, consists of the American F-22 and F-35 as well as China’s J-20. Each generation has been about twice as expensive, on average, in constant dollars, as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. The Russians had a hard time developing their 5th generation, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. Other nations did the same and it wasn’t until the 2020s that there were three different fifth-gen fighters purportedly in service. There were several decades between fourth and fifth generation aircraft, which is partly due to the end of the Cold War in 1991 and China not becoming a major military power until two decades later.

The MiG-29 dates from the 1980s and was the last aircraft designed by the now defunct MiG company. Rival Sukhoi later introduced two new aircraft, the Su-24 and Su-35. Both performed poorly in combat over Ukraine.

The MiG-29 entered service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. The 22-ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16, but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics but also making the airframe more robust.

The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time, Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. Didn’t work out that way. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. Eventually Russia offered an upgrade to the airframe so that the aircraft could fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This has not been easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns, both mechanical and electronic, which indicates a flawed design.

Western warplanes are built to last longer. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. Advances in engineering, materials, and maintenance techniques extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas flew over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime. That led to a refurbishment program to extend F-16C flight hours to 10,000 or more.

The U.S. Air Force had to refurbish several hundred of its 22-ton F-16 fighters, because their replacement, the 31-ton F-35, did not arrive on time. Most existing F-16s are old, and by 2016, many were too old to operate. Back then the average age of F-16s was over 20 years, and the average aircraft has over 5,000 flight hours on it. In 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models, Block 25 F-16s, passed 7,000 hours. While older F-16s are being retired for their age, they tend to have at least twice as many flight hours as their Russian counterparts. Because of greater durability and ease of maintenance, the seemingly more expensive Western fighters are actually cheaper in the lifetime of an aircraft because they last longer and are easier to maintain than equivalent Russian designs.

The Block 70 F-16 was also sold to Slovakia which ordered 14, Bulgaria asked for eight and Bahrain received 16 new F-16s plus twenty older F-16s upgraded to Block 7o. South Korea upgraded over a hundred of its F-16s to the Block 70 standard. The F-16V was the popular choice for post-Cold War members of NATO, like Slovakia and Bulgaria, seeking to replace early model MiG-29s. New users of the F-16 also purchase spares, maintenance equipment, training, aircraft accessories, like look and shoot helmets plus tech support and assistance in setting up maintenance and support facilities. These can be used for other aircraft types and are a good investment. The sale includes air-to-air missiles and smart bombs as well.

The F-16V was introduced in 2012 as the last model of the F-16 but production of the F-16 did not as planned in late 2016 because possible further sales of the F-16V became a reality. Additionally it became possible to upgrade some or all of the older F-16s to the Block 7o standard. These Block 7o upgrades are not always possible, or practical, for the oldest models of the F-16. These upgrades include replacing many structural elements as well as installing more powerful engines and the most modern electronics and fire control systems available.

Although production of the F-16 ceased temporarily, its manufacturer Lockheed Martin, also known as LockMart, continues to do upgrades and refurbishments, and produce new F-16Vs due to buyer demand.

The changes in the V model are considerable. The airframe is upgraded and strengthened to enable 12,000 flight hours per aircraft. The electronics undergo an even more extensive upgrade which involves replacing the mechanical radar with an AESA phased array radar, an upgraded cockpit, a Sniper targeting pod, a Link 16 digital data link and upgraded navigation gear. The newly redesigned cockpit is all digital and flat screen touch displays that replace dozens of gauges and switches and make it much easier to fly. AESA and the new fire control system make it possible to track multiple aircraft at once as well as track vehicles on land or vessels at sea. The targeting pod enables the pilot to confirm visually what is on the surface and promptly attack it with smart bombs or missiles. LockMart initially expected to get orders for at least 700 newly built F-16V or less expensive upgrades. An upgrade brings in as little as $10 million per aircraft while five or ten of these upgrades equals the price of one new F-16V. But when you have orders for hundreds of F-16V upgrades you have a lot of F-16 work.

The F-16 thus follows the path of previous best selling fighters. During the 1947-1991 Cold War Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s. After 1991 warplane manufacturing plummeted about 90 percent. However, the F-16 has been popular enough to keep the production lines going strong into the 2020s. The U.S. still has about 1,200 F-16s in service, with about half with reserve units. F-16s built so far went to 27 countries before Ukraine requested them. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used airplane market. The end of the Cold War led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 is on its way to replacing all U.S. F-16s by the late 2020s. The U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, while many allies need low cost jet fighters. Many current F-16 users planned to replace the F-16 with the F-35 but that aircraft costs more than twice as much as a new F-16V so air forces are seeking to operate a mixed force of F-35s and late model F-16s. A current example of this is Poland, which is sending its older MiG-29s to Ukraine. These have a few good years left, which is all Ukraine needs.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and some cost as much as $70 million each, like the F-16I for Israel. Some nations, like South Korea, built over a hundred F-16s under license. The 16 ton F-16 also has an admirable combat record and is very popular with pilots. It has been successful at ground support as well. When equipped with 4-6 smart bombs, it is an effective bomber. Since first entering service some 4,600 F-16s have flown over 12 million hours. Despite fears that a single engine fighter would be less safe, F-16s have, in the 21st century, suffered an accident rate (loss or major damage) of 2.4 per 100,000 flight hours.

The F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually seven major mods, identified by block number like 32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60, 70 and 72, plus the Israeli F-16I, which is a major modification of the Block 52. The F-16D is a two seat trainer version of F-16Cs. The various block mods included a large variety of new components and can choose from five different engines, four sets of avionics, five generations of electronic warfare gear, five radars and many other mechanical, software, cockpit and electrical mods.

Until Block 70 came along the most advanced F-16 was the F-16 Block 60. The best example of this is a special version of the Block 60 developed for the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE bought 80 Desert Falcons, the F-16Es which are optimized for air combat. It is a 22 ton aircraft based on the Block 52 model, which the KF-16 was originally, but with an AESA radar and lots of other additional useful accessories. Block 70 goes beyond Block 60, especially in terms of electronics and airframe enhancement to extend flight life.

The most successful F-16 user is Israel which set a number of combat records with its F-16s. Israel plans to keep some of its late model F-16s flying until 2030 as it retires the oldest ones. At the end of 2016, Israel retired the last of its 125 F-16A fighters. The first 70 were acquired in 1980 and 1981 and included 8 two-seater F-16B trainers. One of the F-16As achieved a record by being the single F-16 with the most air-to-air kills, 6.5, all achieved in 1982 using three different pilots. Israel received 50 used F-16As in 1994 including 14 B models and used these mainly as trainers.

The Ukrainians are well aware of the F-16’s track record, especially when compared to the MiG-29. That’s why Ukraine keeps asking for F-16s.




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