East European NATO member Romania finally retired the last of its MiG-21 fighters in May 2023. This ended the nearly 70 years of MiG-21 use by European nations. Small numbers of MiG-21s still serve in a number of African countries.
Romania has a small economy, and defense budget, compared to the original (West European) NATO countries and most other new East European NATO members. This has made it difficult, but not impossible to upgrade its military to meet NATO standards. That meant replacing all the Russian combat aircraft with more capable Western models. If you were on a budget, the best inexpensive NATO compliant fighter was the F-16. There was a thriving market in second-hand F-16s and upgrades for F-16s. of all ages. There was an upgrade market for MiG-21s after the Cold War ended in 1991. Romania kept its MiG-21s relevant for a long time via periodic upgrades. This kept Romanian MiG-21 LanceR models in service longer than anyone else’s. Romania’s transition to F-16s also involved a series of upgraded second-hand F-16s.
For example, Romania is replacing its 17 current second-hand F-16Bs with 32 more modern Norwegian second-hand F-16s. Norway upgraded its F-16s to the equivalent of the F-16C Block 50 in 2010. Romania negotiated the purchase of the Norwegian F-16s for $12 million per aircraft. This included spare parts and support equipment plus maintenance and technical training services. Deliveries began on schedule in 2023 and will be completed in 2024. These aircraft are good for at least another ten years. Norway had the best maintained F-16s in NATO, and recently replaced its F-16s with F-35s.
The Romanian F-16s from Portugal had been upgraded to a less advanced F-16 version. Romania also had 16 MiG-21 fighters in service until the last of these were retired in 2023. Romania joined NATO in 2004 and retiring its MiG-21s makes it NATO-compliant in fighter aircraft. Romania is one the three NATO nations (including Bulgaria and Turkey) with a Black Sea coastline and the only one bordering Ukraine. That land border is used to get NATO supplies into Ukraine. Romania also provides training for some Ukrainian troops and security for commercial shipping moving between Ukraine and the Turkish exit to the Mediterranean.
Romania and many other NATO members have long used the F-16 because this aircraft has the most impressive combat record of any current jet fighter. The U.S. was the earliest and largest user of the F-16 and its F-16 fleet, containing many aircraft acquired in the 1980s, is rapidly aging. The average age of American F-16s is over 30 years, and the average aircraft has nearly 7,000 flight hours on it. Most European nations received their F-16s in the 1980s and have upgraded them since. But they are still basically elderly aircraft. Back in 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 flight hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models (a Block 25) F-16 passed 7,000 hours in the air. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours. Advances in engineering, materials and maintenance techniques have extended that to over 8,000 hours. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, F-16s sent to these areas flew over a thousand hours a year more than what they would fly in peacetime.
The F-16 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 numbers have plummeted about 90 percent. The F-16 was popular enough to keep the production lines going strong into the 2020s. The U.S. still has about a thousand F-16s in service, with about half in reserve units. F-16s built so far were exported to 27 countries. America has hundreds in storage, available for sale on the used airplane market. The end of the Cold War also led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35s are replacing all U.S. F-15s and F-16s, a process that will be complete by 2030. That means the U.S. will have 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.
NATO nations maintain warplanes that are believed capable of handling the Russian air force. The current war in Ukraine has revealed the actual capabilities of Russian warplanes, which turned out to be much less than expected. This means many NATO air forces can get by with upgraded F-16s rather than replacing F-16s with the new American F-35. Most F-35s are going to export customers.
Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and these, like the Israeli F-16I, cost as much as $70 million each. 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, but with an AESA radar and lots of other electronic and mechanical enhancements. 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 into the 2030s 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, which is 70 percent of the 67 kills for all F-16s built. Israeli F-16A aircraft 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 helped sell the older F-16As, even in a crowded market with more and more of these oldest F-16s being retired rather than upgraded. That is easier to do with the more recent F-16C models and that is what Israel did with all of its F-16Cs.