Warplanes: F-16 Becomes F-21

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March 3, 2019: In an effort of gain an edge in the competition to provide India with 110 modern fighters to replace its Cold War era MiG-21s and MiG-27s 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 the F-16 Block 70 or, rather the Block 72 for the Indian variant. The Indian F-21 will be built in India (using many American made components). Meanwhile, there are other customers. The Block 70 F-16 has also been sold Slovakia (ordered 14) Bulgaria (eight), Bahrain (16 new plus twenty older F-16s upgraded to Block 7o). 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 if they build their own. 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 the popular choice for post-Cold War members of NATO, like Slovakia and Bulgaria, seeking to replace early model MiG29s. India already uses some MiG-29s and Indian air force pilots believe a late model F-16 would be a better aircraft than their current late model MiG-29s. 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 (which can be used for other aircraft types.) The sale includes air-to-air missiles and smart bombs as well. So selling the F-21 to India introduces large sales of many other items and services. The initial contract is estimated at over $5 billion (mainly just for the 110 F21s).

The F-16V was introduced in 2012 as the last model of the F-16 and one reason production of the F-16 did not end in late 2016 with the production F-16IQs for Iraq. Production of F-16s, which has been going on since 1973 (with the first prototype) has halted for a while but it is not yet ended. There are several recent and future sales keeping production going. At the end of 2016 when all 36 Iraqi F-16IQs had been built 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 7o standard. These Block 7o 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 some countries with a license to build American aircraft sometimes obtain.

The F-16V Block 70 is the most advanced F-16 model ever. 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 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 makes sense even before the T-50A lost the competition to replace older U.S. Air Force trainers.

Although production of the F-16 ceased temporarily after 44 years the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) will continue to do 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 while 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 F-16 work.

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 the 2020s. The U.S. still has about a 1,200 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 an 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, 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 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.

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 record 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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