Procurement: F-16 Immortality

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December 20, 2019: Romania has ordered another five used F-16A fighters from Portugal. Romania had earlier purchased twelve, of which nine have been delivered. This is part of a long-delayed Romanian air force upgrade program. When Romania joined NATO in 2004 it committed to modernizing its military forces. Romania approached the U.S. and Holland about buying used F-16s but those deals never materialized. By 2012 Romania found a suitable supplier in fellow NATO member Portugal, which had used F-16A/B fighters to dispose of. Both countries faced budget crises. However, Portugal needed immediate cash and Romania needed more modern fighter aircraft desperately. At that time Romania’s fleet of Cold War-era Russian-made aircraft was no longer in flying condition. Initially, Romania sought to purchase 45 used F-16s but, once more, budget constraints reduced the number to the current 17. Without those Portuguese F-16s, Romania faced having an air force with no fighters, only transports. Romania had talked to the U.S. about purchasing 24 used F-16s but the Portuguese offered a much more attractive price. The first twelve F-16s cost about $734 million, which included training (pilots and maintainers), weapons, spare parts, maintenance equipment and some refurbishment and support services form the F-16 manufacturer. The first six arrived in 2016. The most recent purchase will cost about $115 million and also includes a lot of accessories and maintenance support as well as some refurbishment.

Currently Romania also has about 24 operational MiG-21s out of 111 MiG-21s that were refurbished and upgraded by an Israeli firm in the 1990s to meet minimum NATO standards. Accidents and old age have, in the last decade, reduced the number of flyable MiG-21s. NATO membership includes the ability of member air forces to meet certain minimum standards in terms of aircraft equipment, especially communications, and performance. The refurbed MiG-21s were a temporary solution and Romania has to obtain more modern fighters to maintain its NATO membership. After the Cold War ended in 1991, many NATO members reduced the size of their armed forces and many modern, but used armored vehicles, ships and aircraft became available. New Eastern Europesn NATO members bought a lot of this stuff to quickly and inexpensively upgrade their armed forces with NATO compatible equipment.

The F-16 was the popular choice for new, post-Cold War NATO members like Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. All were seeking to replace early model MiG29s. The last F-16 version, the F-16V, is now being offered to India to replace its Cold War era MiG-21s and MiG-27s. India also has some MiG-29s and pilots of these aircraft believe a late model F-16 would be a better aircraft than their current late model MiG-29s. Pilots of the older MiGs prefer any Western fighter as a replacement for the aging, and frequently crashing, MiGs. New users of the F-16 also purchase spares, maintenance equipment, training, aircraft accessories, like “look and shoot” helmets, plus tech support and setting up maintenance and support facilities. These can be used for other aircraft types. The sale includes air-to-air missiles and smart bombs. So selling the F-21 to India means large orders for many other items and services. The initial contract is estimated at over $5 billion, mainly just for the 110 F21s. This competition has not been decided yet but Indian firms have already been found that can, and are, manufacturing components of American military aircraft. If the F-16V wins the contract for 110 aircraft these aircraft would be assembled in India with many locally produced components.

In an effort to gain an edge in the Indian fighter competition the latest model of the F-16, the F-16V was offered. Noting how extensive the upgrades were for the F-16V the manufacturer has renamed this version the F-21. That designation has already been used for former Israeli Kfir fighters used, since the 1980s, to represent enemy aircraft in “adversary combat training” for the air force and navy. No one is complaining about the F-21 name being used for the Indian Block 72 version of the F-16. The Indians think it is rather fitting because the F-21 is pretty impressive for a 1970s design.

The F-21 is basically an F-16 Block 70 or, rather the Block 72 for the Indian variant. The Indian F-21 will be built in India, using American and Indian components. Meanwhile, there are other customers for the Block 70, which has also been sold to Slovakia (ordered 14), Bulgaria (eight) and Bahrain (16 new plus twenty older F-16s upgraded to Block 70). In addition, South Korea is upgrading over a hundred of its F-16s to the Block 70 standard.

The exact differences between Block 70 and 72 are still vague because the Block 72 simply covers whatever tweaks Indian decides to make to the Block 70 specifications for the F-16s they buy and build. This is typical of license-built aircraft and many F-16s were built (or just assembled) under license in the country that was using them and became variants of whatever block version they were. These differences often include locally made electronic components or weapons not normally used on the F-16. These differences can add up and India has already done this with the many Russian designed warplanes it has built under license.

The F-16V was introduced in 2012 and was believed to be the last model of the F-16. One reason F-16 production did not end in late 2016, after 44 years, when the Iraqi F-16IQs were completed was that unexpected orders, or sales opportunities, kept showing up. Production of F-16s, which has been going on since 1973 when the first prototype was built and continued for more than 40 years. There are several recent and future sales keeping production going. At the end of 2016 possible sales of the F-16V became a reality. In addition to Slovakia, Bulgaria and Bahrain, other F-16 users are considering purchases, to replace elderly fighters or to upgrade some or all of the older F-16s to the Block 70 standard. These Block 70 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.

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. This is an option not all countries with a license to build American aircraft obtain.

Since India and the U.S. Air Force won’t make a final decision for a while (2020 or later), the last F-16 assembly line was 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 lost a competition for a major contract in late 2018. The South Carolina plant can now be devoted to F-16 production. Since the T-50A is based on the F-16 design, moving the last F-16 production line to South Caroline made sense even before the T-50A lost the competition to replace older U.S. Air Force trainers.

Although mass production of the F-16 in the United States has ended the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) will continue doing 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 newly redesigned cockpit is all digital and flat-screen touch displays that replace 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 as little as $10 million per aircraft, which means 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 work and it is often done in the same facilities where new F-16s are built.

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. Since 1991 warplane manufacturing has 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 1,100 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 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 a remarkably low 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 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 (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.

These 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 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.

The Indian competition includes the Swedish Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the French Rafale, F-18E and MiG-35. The F-16 has the most extensive combat record and an impressive one at that. Moreover, the F-16 has the greatest number of current users, all of whom think highly of the aircraft. But it is generally conceded that Indian weapons competitions are often decided by other factors, usually political.

 


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