Warplanes: Why Everyone Wants F-16s


March 18, 2023: Poland and Slovakia agreed to send Ukraine about 30 MiG-29 fighters. Poland and Slovakia are replacing their Russian-designed warplanes with Western models. Poland already has 36 F-16s and in 2020 ordered 32 F-35s. Slovakia has F-16s on order.

The Ukrainian Air Force is still, after a year of fighting, in pretty good shape. When the Russians invaded Ukraine had about 91 fighters (most of them MiG-29s) and nearly as many helicopters. At least 18 of their 43 MiG-29s were lost in combat during the first year of the war. Ukraine would prefer to get F-16s and has to convince the Americans that they could quickly adapt to them. Meanwhile, Ukraine has lots of experience with MiG-29s and uses them extensively. Some have been modified to handle Western anti-radar missiles as well as GPS guided bombs. While the Ukrainians have have made good use of their MiG-29s, they would prefer F-16s.

The F-16 and MiG-29 are both considered 4th generation (1970s and 80s) aircraft. The 5th generation, so far, consists of the F-22, F-35 and China’s J-20. Each generation has been about twice as expensive (on average, in constant dollars) as the previous one. But each generation is also about twice as safe to fly and cheaper to operate. Naturally, each generation is more than twice as effective as the previous one. The Russians had a hard time developing their 5th generation, although some of the derivatives of their Su-27 are at least generation 4.5. Other nations did the same and it wasn’t until the 2020s that there were three different fifth-gen fighters purportedly in service. There were several decades between fourth and fifth generation aircraft, which is partly due to the end of the Cold War in 1991 and China not becoming a major military power until two decades later.

The MiG-29 dates from the 1980s and was the last aircraft designed by the now defunct MiG company. Rival Sukhoi later introduced two new aircraft, the Su-24 and Su-35. Both performed poorly in combat over Ukraine.

The MiG-29 entered service in 1983. Some 1,600 MiG-29s were produced so far, with about 900 of them exported. The 22-ton aircraft is roughly comparable to the F-16 but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Russia is making a lot of money upgrading MiG-29s. Not just adding new electronics but also making the airframe more robust.

The MiG-29 was originally rated at 2,500 total flight hours. At that time (early 80s), Russia expected MiG-29s to fly about a hundred or so hours a year. Didn’t work out that way. India, for example, flew them at nearly twice that rate, as did Malaysia. Eventually Russia offered an upgrade to the airframe so that the aircraft could fly up to 4,000 hours, with more life extension upgrades promised. This has not been easy, as the MiG-29 has a history of unreliability and premature breakdowns (both mechanical and electronic) which indicates a flawed initial design.

Western warplanes are built to last longer. The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of 4,000 hours in the air. Advances in engineering, materials, and maintenance techniques 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. That led to a refurbishment program to extend F-16C flight hours to 10,000 (10K) or more.

The U.S. Air Force had to refurbish several hundred of its 22-ton F-16 fighters, because their replacement, the 31-ton F-35, did not arrive on time. Most existing F-16s are old, and by 2016, many were too old to operate. Back then the average age of F-16s was over 20 years, and the average aircraft has over 5,000 flight hours on it. In 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest model (a Block 25) F-16s passed 7,000 hours. While older F-16s are being retired for their age, they tend to have at least twice as many flight hours as their Russian counterparts. Because of greater durability and ease of maintenance, the seemingly more expensive Western fighters are actually cheaper in the lifetime of an aircraft because they last longer and are easier to maintain than equivalent Russian designs.

The Block 70 F-16 was also sold to Slovakia (ordered 14) Bulgaria (eight), Bahrain (16 new plus twenty older F-16s upgraded to Block 7o). South Korea upgraded over a hundred of its F-16s to the Block 70 standard. The F-16V was the popular choice for post-Cold War members of NATO, like Slovakia and Bulgaria, seeking to replace early 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. 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 of F-16IQs for Iraq. Production of F-16s, which has been going on since 1973 (with the first prototype), 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.

Although production of the F-16 ceased temporarily after 44 years, the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) continues to do upgrades and refurbishments for as long as there is demand. Many of those upgrades will be to the V standard. LockMart received 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 gauges and switches and make it much easier to fly. AESA and the new fire control system make 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 expected to get orders for at least 700 newly built F-16V or less expensive upgrades. An upgrade brings in as littles 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. After 1991 warplane manufacturing 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 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 is on its way to replacing all U.S. F-16s by the late 2020s. The U.S. has plenty of little-used F-16s sitting around, while many allies are 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. A current example of this is Poland, which is sending its older MiG-29s to Ukraine. These have a few good years left, which is all Ukraine needs.

Since the 1990s most F-16s produced were for export and some 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 and can choose from five different 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 until 2030 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.

The Ukrainians are well aware of the F-16’s track record, especially when compared to the MiG-29. That’s why Ukraine keeps asking for F-16s.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close