Warplanes: The Penultimate F-16

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April 28, 2018: One of the post-Cold War members of NATO, Slovakia, is buying 14 of the latest model F-16V fighters to replace their aging (and incompatible with NATO) MiG-29s. Slovakia will pay $2.91 billion for these 14 aircraft in a deal that includes spares, maintenance equipment, training, aircraft accessories (like “look and shoot” helmets) plus tech support and setting up maintenance and support facilities (which can be used for other aircraft types.) The sale includes air-to-air missiles and smart bombs as well.

The F-16V is apparently the last model of the F-16 and one reason production of the F-16 did not end in late 2016 with the production F-16IQs for Iraq. Production of F-16s, which has been going on since 1973 (with the first prototype) has halted for a while but it is not yet ended. There are several more possible sales. So at the end of 2016 when all 36 Iraqi F-16IQs had been built possible sales of the F-16V became a reality. In addition to Slovakia the U.S. Air Force is considering a purchase, to replace elderly F-15C fighters. And then there is the offer to set up licensed production in India so India can produce the modern fighters it is looking for while also producing F-16Vs for other customers.

The F-16V Block 70 is the most advanced F-16 model ever. Since India and the U.S. Air Force won’t make a final decision for a while (another year or so at least) the last F-16 assembly line is being moved from Texas to a smaller plant in South Carolina. The Texas facility, where some 80 percent of all F-16s were built, is now producing F-35s. In South Carolina, a smaller plant has been building pre-production models of the T-50A jet trainer, which has not won any major contracts yet. Since the T-50A is based on the F-16 design moving the last F-16 production line to South Caroline makes sense.

Meanwhile, there is the current “last F-16” which, with or without the Indian sale, will always be unique and some will enter service in 2019. Sixteen F-16Vs are already in use for developmental work. Although production of the F-16 has ceased temporarily after 44 years the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) will continue to do upgrades and refurbishments into the 2020s and beyond. Many of those upgrades will be to the V standard. Currently, LockMart has orders for over 300 upgrades of late model F-16s to the F-16V standard and a growing number of requests for newly built F-16Vs.

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 new cockpit features a 15cm x 20cm (6x8 inch) flat screen display that replaces dozens of gages and switches and makes it much easier to fly the aircraft. AESA and the new fire control system makes 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 expects to get orders for at least 700 newly built F-16V or less expensive upgrades. An upgrade brings in less than $10 million per aircraft while five or ten of these upgrades equals the price of one new F-16V.

The F-16 thus follows the path of previous best selling fighters. During The Cold War (1947-91) 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 until 2016. The U.S. still has about a 1,200 F-16s in service (about half with reserve units). F-16s built so far went to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used warplane market. The end of the Cold War 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 by the late 2020s. So the U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, and many allies in need of 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.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and these cost as much as $70 million each (like the F-16I for Israel). Some nations, like South Korea, built the F-16 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 nearly 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 (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60, 70), 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.)

Until the 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-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 radar and lots of other additional goodies. The Block 70 goes beyond the 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 for over a decade more 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 F-16As were the first of the nearly 400 F-16s Israel obtained from the United States since 1980. Israeli F-16s have shot down 47 aircraft (70 percent of the 67 kills for all F-16s built). Israeli F-16As flew 474,000 sorties and spent over 335,000 hours in the air over 35 years. Israel was the most energetic user of the F-16 and also took the lead in developing upgrades and accessories. This could help in selling the older F-16As, but that is a crowded market with more and more of these oldest F-16s being retired rather than upgraded. That is easier to do with the later F-16C models and that what Israel did with all of its F-16Cs.

 


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