Warplanes: F-16 Fever In the Middle East

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December 19, 2015: The heavy use of F-16s by Arab (Oman, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and United Arab Emirates) air forces over Syria, Iraq and Yemen has reminded many current and prospective users that the F-16 is quite effective as well as cheaper to buy, maintain and operate than most other modern jet fighters. Since the United States and Turkey also use the F-16 in the Middle East it is easy to equip these aircraft to communicate and operate with each other. It is also easier to operate F-16s out of any country that also has F-16s because all F-16 users have similar ground handling facilities and personnel trained to maintain the aircraft. As a result more orders for F-16s (new and used) are being received as well as more demand for upgrade work. Countries like Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who have never operated F-16s, are now interested as well.

One of the more interesting new users is Iraq. In early September Iraqi F-16IQ fighter-bombers carried out their first combat missions, using smart bombs against several ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) targets. This came 16 months after the F-16IQ made its first flight. Four F-16IQs arrived in Iraq in July so that Iraqi pilots and maintainers could undertake final training in preparation for the first combat missions.

The F-16IQ is a custom version of the single seat Block 52 F-16C and the two-seater F-16D. Between 2011 and 2014 Iraq ordered 36 F-16IQs. The F-16IQ is similar to American Block 52 F-16s except they are not equipped to handle AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missiles) or JDAM (GPS guided bombs). The F-16IQ can handle laser guided bombs and older radar guided missiles like the AIM-7.

Iraq originally proposed buying F-16s in 2009 but nothing happened because at the last minute government officials were informed that putting money down for the warplanes would interrupt needed food purchases. If the food did not get paid for it would not arrive and there could be riots. So the F-16 purchase was delayed and it was feared that all Iraqi F-16IQs probably would not be ready for service until the end of the decade. All that changed in mid-2014 when ISIL took Mosul and much of western and northwestern Iraq. Now the F-16IQ had a much higher priority.

The F-16 is currently the most popular fighter aircraft in service. The U.S. still has about 1,200 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). Over 4,500 F-16s have been built so far, and delivered to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War in 1991 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 will be replacing all U.S. F-16s in the next decade. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of low cost jet fighters.

F-16s are still produced for export, and these cost as much as $70 million each (like the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, build the F-16 under license. A used F-16C, built in the 1990s, would go for about $10 million on the open market. 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.

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.

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 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 most advanced F-16 is theF-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-16E) which is 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 (phased array) radar and lots of other additional goodies (what the upgraded KF-16 will largely be).

 


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