Attrition: SLEPing Around the F-16 Shortage

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May 19, 2017: The U.S. Air Force decided to upgrade over 300 late model (Block 40-52) F-16s to enable them to remain in service for up to 12,000 flight hours and justify installing more modern electronics. This is a continuation of a 2011 decision to refurbish several hundred of its 22 ton F-16s because their replacement, the 31 ton F-35 was not arriving in time. But now the F-35 is showing and works as advertised. But while the Department of Defense knew over a decade ago when the F-35 would show up and the F-16s begin to wear out, they did not foresee the heavy use of F-16s for the battle against Islamic terrorism as well as the growing hostility and aggression from Russia.

Many American F-16s are old and without major upgrades would not be flyable by the end of the decade. The average age of flyable F-16s is over 20 years and the average aircraft has over 6,000 flight hours on it. In 2009 the first Block 40 F-16 passed 7,000 hours. In 2008 the first of the earliest models (a Block 25) F-16 passed 7,000 hours.

The F-16C was originally designed for a service life of flight 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 2011 SLEP (Service Life Extension Program) will extended F-16C flight hours to 10,000 or more. It was discovered that this could safely be extended to 12,000 hours.

The 2011 upgrade concentrated on extending the life of the airframe. The air force carries out SLEPs frequently to all aircraft models. The 2011 SLEP was special only because it concentrated on very old aircraft and is intended to keep these birds viable for another 5-10 years. The latest SLEP will keep these aircraft operating into the late 2040s,

Although production of the F-16 has ceased (perhaps permanently) after 44 years the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) continues to do upgrades and refurbishments for as long as there is sufficient demand. Currently LockMart has orders for over 300 upgrades of late model F-16s to the new 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 and some of these will be for the latest U.S. Air Force SLEP.

The F-16 has proved to be remarkably adaptable and is one of the most modified jet fighters in service. The most numerous F-16 is the C model. The first version of this, the F-16C Block 25, entered service in 1984. The original F-16, as the F-16A Block 1, entered service in 1978. While most F-16s still in service are 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. Another special version (the Block 60), for the UAE (United Arab Emirates) is called the F-16E. 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.)

The F-16 is the most numerous post-Cold War jet fighter, with over 4,500 built. During The Cold War, Russia built over 10,000 MiG-21s, and the U.S over 5,000 F-4s, but since 1991 warplane production has plummeted about 90 percent. One exception, since the end of the Cold War, has been the F-16, which was popular enough to keep the production lines going through the end of 2016.

The F-16 can also function as a bomber and ground attack aircraft, although not as effectively as the air force experts would have you believe. It can carry four tons of bombs, and has been very effective using smart bomb. In air-to-air combat, F-16s have shot down 69 aircraft so far, without losing anything to enemy warplanes. Not bad for an aircraft that was originally designed as a cheaper alternative to the heavier F-15.

The two most advanced versions of the F-16 are in use by foreign air forces. The UAE has 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 (phased array) radar and lots of other additional goodies.

The Israeli F-16I is optimized for bombing. It's a 24 ton, two seat aircraft, and is probably the most capable F-16 model in service. It's basically a modified version of the Block 52, equipped with a more advanced radar (the APG-68X) and the ability to carry Israeli weapons like the Python 4 air-to-air missile and the Popeye 2 air-to-surface missile. Costing $45 million each, the F-16I has an excellent navigation system, which allows it to fly on the deck (100 meters/300 feet from the ground), without working the pilot to death. The aircraft can do this at night or in any weather. The F-16I can carry enough fuel to hit targets 1,600 kilometers away (meaning Iran is within range). The aircraft uses the latest short and long range air-to-air missiles, as well as smart bombs. Electronic countermeasures are carried, as is a powerful computer system, which records the details of each sortie in great detail. This is a big help for training. The F-16I is basically optimized to deliver smart bombs anywhere, despite dense air defenses. This further increases Israel's military power versus its neighbors. Israel has received 102 new F-16I fighter-bombers in the last five years. Added to this will be another 125, as older F-16s are upgraded.

Although the F-35 is designed to replace the F-16, many current users will probably keep their F-16s in service for a decade or more. The F-16 gets the job done, reliably and inexpensively. Why pay more for new F-35s if your potential enemies can be deterred with F-16s.

 


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