Warplanes: No Love For Old F-16s

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February 8, 2017: Norway has decided to retire and begin scrapping its remaining 56 F-16C fighters by 2022 rather than keeping them in reserve or trying to sell them on the second-hand market. By 2022 the F-16s will have been replaced by 52 F-35s, which will begin arriving in Norway by late 2017. The F-35 has been plagued by a seemingly endless number of unexpected delays but so far Norway has remained a customer. If deliveries continue on schedule Norway will have all 52 F-35s in service by 2021 and F-16s will no longer be needed at all.

While the F-35s will be arriving on schedule Norway is now concerned about the new ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System) software the U.S. Navy and Air Force have created to handle aircraft maintenance. ALIS was developed with the F-35 in mind and as an automated supply system that would be eventually used by most other military aircraft. But foreign customers for the F-35 feel that ALIS is being forced on them and one of those customers, Israel, has refused to depend on ALIS exclusively for F-35 maintenance. Another problem foreign customers have is all the information on their ALIS supported aircraft the system will collect and send back to the United States. Some of this data is protected by local laws and that, plus continued software development problems are bothering foreign F-35 users. Then there are the American political problems related to ALIS and the F-35. For example the F-35 manufacturer, in order to obtain maximum political support for the F-35, selected suppliers with an eye towards where they were, in addition to what they could do. The object of this (a common practice) was to have suppliers in as many of the 435 Congressional districts as possible, especially those held by a politician providing crucial support for keeping the F-35 project funded. This means that there are more suppliers than are actually needed and that security in any networked supply system is only as strong as that of the weakest company connected to the network. While testing the network security on ALIS actual and potential vulnerability to hackers was revealed as a major weakness. Fixing it is difficult because so many suppliers are involved and the demands of foreign users has made the task even more difficult.

ALIS is more than just a convenient way to order spare parts and other F-35 maintenance supplies. It also contains analysis capabilities that predict the health of individual F-35s, based on what they have been doing. If an enemy can break into ALIS, they know what the F-35 fleet (of, eventually, several thousand aircraft) has been doing and what is being planned. Building, maintaining, and now making ALIS more resistant to attack is itself a multi-billion dollar project. Failure to protect ALIS puts all F-35s at risk. It’s a new vulnerability, the dark side of the many benefits coming from the use of networks and new analytics capabilities.

Meanwhile Norway justifies scrapping its F-16s by pointing out that it has one of the oldest and heavily used F-16s in Europe. The Norwegian F-16s have, on average, 10,000 flight hours. Currently Norwegian F-16s fly about 140 hours each per year. Maintaining these elderly fighters as a reserve would be too expensive. Moreover the market for used F-16s is crowded and many of those secondhand fighters have far fewer flight hours on them. Norway originally obtained 72 F-16AMs in the early 1980s and upgraded them in the late 1990s to the Block 50 standard. The Norwegian F-16AMs were built in the Netherlands under license. A decade ago Norway realized it would have to replace the wings on its F-16C fighters to keep them in service until the early 2020s. This was done but in doing so it was discovered that these elderly fighters would require more of these expensive fixes to keep them going. Finally the Norwegians realized selling second-hand F-16s required permission from the United States (because so much American tech was involved) and Norwegian political objections to many potential customers further complicated sales.

The F-16 is the most numerous post-Cold War jet fighter, with nearly 5,000 built or on order. There are 24 nations using the F-16, and 14 have ordered more, in addition to their initial order. During The Cold War, Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s, but since then 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, despite the fact that the F-35 is supposed to replace the F-16. But the F-35 price keeps going up (it is already north of $100 million per aircraft) and the F-16 continues to get the job done at half that price and using many of the same weapons (like AMRAAM) that the F-35 uses.

 


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