In late 2017 the UAE (United Arab Emirates) decided to modernize eighty F-16 fighters. This $1.6 billion upgrade is mainly about the electronics, which will receive new hardware that will increase processing speed considerably and make future hardware and software upgrades easier. Some of the upgrade expense went to expanding supplies of spare parts, which would be essential if the UAE F-16s saw a lot more combat in the future.
This upgrade was surprising because the UAE F-16 E/F is the most advanced version of the F-16. This “Desert Falcon” variant is officially called Block 60/61 of the F-16 and is much more advanced than the Block 52+ that most F-16 users aspire to. The UAE had tried to acquire the F-22 or F-35 but because of security and political considerations such a sale was not possible. To get around that the UAE invested about 3 billion dollars to assemble technology for the most capable F-16 ever. This F-16 was called Desert Falcon made its first flight in late 2003. The manufacturer said they could create a custom F-16 model (F-16E Block 60/61) that would rival most capabilities of the F-35A stealth fighter the UAE wanted.
The airframe is largely what the Block 52 uses but the avionics are radically different. The Desert Eagle was the non U.S. Air Force F-16 with an AN/APG-80 AESA radar. This was a major advance in radars because AESA not only has longer range, greater reliability and more capabilities but it can also jam selected targets and thanks to frequency hopping is much harder for enemy radar waring receiver systems to detect. These F-16 also use the latest F110-GE-132 engine (successor of F110-GE-129) and conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) which improve range (about 40% more than F-16 without CFTs). That is because CFTs generate less drag than underwing drop tanks. The Desert Falcon was the only F-16s to use an internal Infrared Search and Track (IRST) AN/AAQ-32 system. IRST is passive so using it will not emit any electromagnetic signals that can give away its position to enemy. As a result it allows passive targeting which even stealth fighters cannot evade. That is because stealth aircraft still generate detectable (by IRST) heat during flight.
The UAE pilots also have access to JHMCS helmet mounted display which can present information from the aircraft’s radar and sensors wherever the pilot looks. This for example allows pilot to exploit the full HOBS (High Off-Boresight) capabilities of the AIM-9X thus engage a target by simply looking at it and in some cases even fire missile backwards.
The UAE air force bought 80 Desert Falcons but 78 are currently in service because two aircraft has been lost (one in a 2006 crash due technical problem and second during combat in Yemen). The most recent upgrades are probably also connected to all the combat experience UAE F-16E pilots have acquired in Yemen since 2015. The Desert Falcons proved very effective in providing ground support and pilots acquired experience delivering smart bombs under combat conditions. Because of the Yemen experience and the increasingly visible Arab-Israeli alliance the UAE has also expressed renewed interest in the F-35A stealth fighter.
The latest round of Desert Falcon upgrades ensures that the F-16E will continue to be the most advanced and capable ones available. The UAE air force was involved in almost every American led operation in the Middle East and has even collaborated with Israeli air force. However the UAE also tries to diversify suppliers by buying from multiple nations. For example the UAE buys French military hardware and is currently negotiating with Russia to acquire their fifth generation fighter. On the other hand talks with Russia might be just a ruse to force the United States to allow them to buy F-35A which Israel already has in service (the only ones in the region). -- Przemysław Juraszek