Warplanes: T7 Turns into F7


November 24, 2023: The 5.5-ton two-seat Boeing-Saab T-7 jet trainer is evolving into the F-7 jet fighter-bomber that can handle a lot of the work currently done by F-16s, and even extend the useful lives of existing 19-ton F-16s. While the F-16 can carry over seven tons of weapons, it usually hauls about half that. The F-7 can carry less than a ton of weapons. A fire control system has to be installed that can handle guided air-to-ground missiles and bombs.

Most of the 4,600 F-16s built were produced between 1973 and 2017. Limited production still continues, but only a few more new F-16s will be built. Most of the production work currently done is modifications, refurbishment and upgrades to existing aircraft. F-16s have gone through this process more frequently and extensively than any other jet fighter. There is a two-seat version of the F-16 for fighter pilots needing transition training from another jet fighter to the F-16. The lighter F-7 was designed as a trainer and, like many jet trainer aircraft, can be quickly converted into a combat aircraft. Nations that cannot afford to buy or maintain F-16s instead purchase jet trainers that can be quickly converted into combat aircraft. This conversion is often carried out when the jet trainers arrive to create a small force of jet fighter-bombers for countries that cannot afford or maintain anything more ambitious. As a trainer, the T-7 is quickly and easily turned into an F-7. The T-7/F-7 manufacturer expects to produce about 3,000 of these aircraft and expects some of be delivered to customers who intend to militarize their trainers into fighter-bombers quickly.

During the Cold War the Soviet Union gave a lot of countries combat aircraft, like the MiG-21, as a form of diplomacy. Suddenly these poor nations had an air force with modern combat aircraft. Even before the Cold War ended in 1991, a lot of these nations had inoperable MiG-21s and other Soviet-era warplanes. These were often parked at local major airports. It was common for these countries to base their MiGs at their few major airports where there were some maintenance services the jet fighters could use. That was often not enough to keep the MiG jet fighters operational and that explained the inoperable MiG-21s parked at commercial airports; there was no other area where they could be flown to and left to rot.

After the Cold War ended, Russia found more remote areas where they could have their old MiGs make one last flight to and then be parked in the open to rot in rural isolation. When commercial satellite photos became easily available after 2000, many of these abandoned Russian jet fighters were discovered in remote locations where few, if anyone, took notice. Even Americans military surveillance satellites did not notice these abandonment sites, mainly because that’s not what the military satellites were looking for. Curious civilians later found these abandoned warplanes when they gained access to free satellite photos of remote portions of Russia and China. The civilians have plenty of time to scrutinize these photos and detected a lot of interesting things the military analysts missed or were not even looking for. In the Internet age this is called crowdsourcing.

It's no mystery where all the F-16s are. 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 existing 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, but 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 will fly 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 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 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 led to a sharp cut in U.S. Air Force fighter squadrons. Moreover, the new F-35 is beginning to replace 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.

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 to 19-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. Block 70 goes beyond 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-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 sell 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 more recent F-16C models and that is what Israel did with all of its F-16Cs. Israel is buying more F-35s and using them heavily.




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