Warplanes: F-16 Production Ended, Or Did It


April 1, 2017: Production of F-16s, which has been going on since 1973 (with the first prototype) has halted, but it is not yet ended. There is one more possible sale. At the end of 2016 all 36 Iraqi F-16IQs had been built and that was believed to be the last F-16s ever manufactured. Iraq can still get more because older F-16s can be had cheaply and refurbished to the F-16IQ standard. But as the last F-16IQs were being built a possible sale (via licensed production in India) went from long-shot to an idea that was gaining momentum in the U.S. and India. The F-16 Block 70 would be the most advanced model ever. India never seriously considered buying used, but refurbished and upgraded, fighters. Since India won’t make a final decision for a while (as much as 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. Iraq began receiving the first F-16IQs in 2014. This is a special version of the Block 52 F-16C and the two-seater F-16D. The F-16IQ is similar to American Block 52 F-16s except they are not equipped to handle AMRAAM (radar guided air-to-air missiles) or JDAM (GPS guided bombs). The F-16IQ can handle laser guided bombs and older radar guided missiles like the AIM-7. The first 18 F-16IQs were ordered in late 2011 and the first arrived in Iraq right about the time ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) seized Mosul in June 2014. Shortly thereafter Iraq ordered another 18 F-16IQs. The Iraqis were eager to buy F-16s partly because neighboring Turkey and Jordan have done well with this model. Iraqis who have studied the F-16 are also aware that another neighbor, Israel, has the largest fleet of F-16s outside of the United States and the most combat experience.

Meanwhile Israel is staring to move away from the F-16. 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. Israel may still be able to sell some of these F-16As on the second-hand market, like it did with its older Kfir fighters (retired in the 1990s).

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 (out of 67 kills for all 4,588 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.

Although production of the F-16 has ceased (perhaps permanently) after 44 years the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) will continue to do upgrades and refurbishments into the 2020s and beyond. Currently LockMart has orders for over 300 upgrades of late model F-16s to the F-16V standard. This 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 F-16V upgrades. While that brings in less than $10 million per aircraft, five or ten of these upgrades equals the price of one new F-16.

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 thousand 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.

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.

The U.S. F-16 is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. While most are still called the F-16C, there are actually six major mods, identified by block number (32, 40, 42, 50, 52, 60), 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.)

Currently the most advanced F-16 is 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 proposed Indian Block 70 would go a bit beyond the Block 60, especially in terms of electronics.




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