Warplanes: F-16 and F-18 Everywhere and Forever

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November 9, 2005: The American built F-16 and the F-18 jet fighters have been in widespread service for decades. These two aircraft first went head-to-head in the United States Air Force's Lightweight Fighter program - when the F-16 bested the YF-17. The F-16 is faster (a top speed of 2,172 kilometers per hour compared to 1,915 for the F-18), and a larger payload (20,450 pounds to the F-18's 17,000 pounds), while the F-18 has a longer reach (a 3,700-kilometer ferry range compared to 3,445 for the F-16). Congress, trying to save money, wanted both the Navy and Air Force to use the aircraft that won the fly-off. However, the F-16 had some problems from the Navy's perspective. It only has one engine - a major negative when flying over open ocean (engine trouble means a lost aircraft and often a lost pilot as well). The YF-17, which had two engines, was re-worked into a new fighter, the F-18. Both of these aircraft are potent multi-role fighters that have proven combat records.

These two planes have been customized by their various operators. For instance, Israel has upgraded its F-16s with locally built jamming gear and larger drop tanks. Israel has also acquired a purpose-built version of the F-16 called the F-16I. This is a two-seat multi-role version of the F-16C/D Block 50/52, equipped with a more advanced radar (the APG-68(X)) and the ability to carry Israeli weapons like the Python 4 air-to-air missile and the Popeye 2 air-to-surface missile. Nineteen countries currently fly the F-16.

The F-18 also has been customized to a lesser extent, since only eight countries have acquired this plane. Spain has recently begun equipping its F-18s with the KEPD 350 missile. Switzerland has equipped its F-18s with the APG-73 radar. Finland's F-18s had their air-to-surface capability deleted, and also use a locally-built fire-control computer, the Dlec. The Finnish Air Force also made the decision to keep the tailhooks - which other countries have deleted - so that their Hornets can be used from highway strips.

Many of these planes will be passed on second-hand to countries that need new combat aircraft and which are also looking for bargains. This is not unheard of - Kuwait sold its A-4Kus to Brazil after it bought its F-18s. Chile is purchasing some former Dutch F-16As. Former U.S. Navy F-18As were sold to Spain in the early 1990s to boost its force. Italy is flying former USAF F-16s until the Eurofighter enters service in 2010. This is one reason why the F-16 and (to a lesser extent), the F/A-18, will be serving for a long time - even after they are replaced in American service by planes like the F-35 and the F-18E/F.

Fighters with long service lives are not unheard of. The F-86 was on active duty until 1993, when the last aircraft in Bolivian service was retired. The T-33, a variant of the F-80, is still in active service, often as a light attack aircraft. P-51s, F4Us, and P-47s flew against each other in the 1969 "Soccer War" between Honduras and El Salvador. The F-4 today is still in service in large numbers in Japan, Israel, Turkey, and South Korea - having first flown in 1958. The F-5 and it's more capable variant, the F-5E, are also still in service with several countries, having first flown in 1959. Australia has plans to keep its F-111s flying until 2020 (not bad for a plane that first flew in 1964), and the United States Air Force is pushing the B-52H until 2044 - 84 years after it entered service. The F-16 and F-18 will join these others who had long lives in service. - Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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