Murphy's Law: Death From Difficult Details

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March 2, 2020: Poland is having problems maintaining its jet fighters and training enough pilots to fly them. This is a complex problem because it involves money shortages plus the different needs of each aircraft type. The Polish air force currently has 28 MiG-29s, and 48 F-16s plus 32 elderly Su-22 fighter-bombers. The Su-22s are first in line for retirement, followed by the MiGs.

The first F-16s arrived in 2006 and the air force always had problems training enough pilots for these new aircraft. The main problem was not enough money for training. There were not enough modern jet trainers and it took years to address that problem, which is still not solved because there is not enough money in the defense budget to buy sufficient numbers of new trainers fast enough. The training itself is expensive, especially when the new pilots begin using the F-16 and require lots of expensive flight hours. Fuel and spare parts to keep F-16s flying is a major expense and the end result is that Poland only has 23 F-16 pilots who have sufficient training to fly the aircraft at night and in bad weather.

Basic pilot training produces pilots who can handle the aircraft in daylight and good weather. Each pilot needs at least a hundred flight hours a year to maintain proficiency and, to get the most out of their F-16s, pilots should fly nearly 200 hours a year. That’s the experience of the U.S. and the rest of NATO when it comes to any kind of modern fighter. The air force has to economize and one area where that was done is stocks of spare parts for F-16s. More flying hours means more parts wear out and need replacement. You know you have problems when you start grounding some F-16s so you can use some of their components as spare parts to keep others flying.

The Russian MiG-29s are another maintenance problem. This is made worse by the fact that Polish MiG-29s are older and MiG-29s have long been known to be very expensive to maintain. Poland did not begin receiving MiG-29s until the end of the Cold War (1991). Most of their MiG-29s were purchased second hand from East European users who were quick to get rid of them and adopt Western fighters.

All users found the MiG-29 expensive to maintain and less reliable. The Poles found this to be true even after they refurbished some of the MiGs to extend their service life. Nations that can afford to so are backing away from MiG-29s because of reliability and durability problems. This negative reputation is sustained by the continued problems Russia has with these aircraft. It has become quite common for Russia to ground its MiG-29s because of crashes and suspicion that there might be some kind of fundamental design flaw. All aircraft were eventually returned to flight status but the frequency of these problems has added to the bad reputation of the aircraft.

The MiG-29 entered Russian service in 1983, as the answer to the American F-16. Some 1,600 MiG-29s have been produced so far, with most (about 900) exported. The biggest customer, India, received its first MiG-29s in 1986, with deliveries continuing into the 1990s. The 22 ton aircraft is, indeed, roughly comparable to the F-16, but it depends a lot on which version of either aircraft you are talking about. Then there are the notorious reliability problems. Compared to Western aircraft, like the F-16, the MiG-29 is available for action about two thirds as often.

The F-16 was the popular choice for new, post-Cold War NATO members like Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Bulgaria. All were seeking to replace early model MiG29s. The latest F-16 version, the F-16V, is now being offered to India to replace its Cold War era MiG-21s and MiG-27s. India also has some MiG-29s and pilots of these aircraft believe a late model F-16 would be a better aircraft than their current late model MiG-29s. Pilots of the older MiGs prefer any Western fighter as a replacement for their aging and frequently crashing, MiGs.

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. These can be used for other aircraft types. F-16 buyers also buy lots of air-to-air missiles and smart bombs.

Noting how extensive the upgrades were for the F-16V, the manufacturer 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 Block 72 version of the F-16.

The F-21 is basically an F-16 Block 70 or, rather the Block 72 for the model offered to India. Meanwhile, there are other customers for the Block 70, which has also been sold to Slovakia (ordered 14), Bulgaria (eight) and Bahrain (16 new plus twenty older F-16s upgraded to Block 70). In addition, South Korea is upgrading over a hundred of its F-16s to the Block 70 standard.

The F-16V was introduced in 2012 and was believed to be the last model of the F-16. One reason F-16 production did not end in late 2016, after 44 years, was because unexpected orders, or sales opportunities, kept showing up. Production of F-16s has been going on since 1973 when the first prototype was built. Production continued for more than 40 years. There are several recent and future sales keeping production going. Other F-16 users are considering purchasing the V/F-21 model to replace elderly fighters or to upgrade some or all of the older F-16s to the Block 70 standard. These Block 70 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 mass production of the F-16 in the United States has ended the manufacturer (Lockheed Martin or “LockMart”) continues doing upgrades and refurbishments and this will continue as long as there is demand (definitely through the 2020s and possibly the 2030s) 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.

Unlike the MiG-29, where Russia is the main, and often only, source of spare parts, three times as many F-16s were built and a larger percentage are still flying compared to the MiG-29. There are more parts suppliers and more nations that supply refurbishment and upgrade services. So in addition to being a more reliable aircraft, the F-16 is cheaper to operate and maintain than the MiG-29.

That means little if an F-16 user is beset by constant budget shortages as well as the need to keep as many F-16s flying and the pilots in the air frequently enough to get the most out of the aircraft. It is no secret that most of the lifetime cost of a modern jet fighter consists of maintenance, spare parts and fuel. Governments tend to focus on the initial cost of the aircraft and ignore the implications of the lifetime cost and how it all combines to product fighters that are in flying condition when needed and pilots who can make the most of the aircraft capabilities.

Lastly Poland is also ordering the F-35, a few at a time, over the next decade or so until they have 32 to 48.

 


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