The last of the gunfighters will not be hanging up its holster any time soon. While the Trump administration has been playing Let’s Make a Deal with Lockheed Martin and Boeing over the future of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Department of Defense has decided to extend the life of yet another old warhorse to fill the gap. At least 300 F-16 Fighting Falcons will receive structural and avionics upgrades that will allow them to fly until at least 2048, thanks to a Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) with Lockheed Martin.
The Obama administration had already made plans for the A-10 Thunderbolt to stay in service until 2022 to fill the close air support role and had plotted an upgrade to the F-16 as well since 2012. But the task of pulling the trigger on the F-16 upgrade was left to the Trump administration. “Following F-16 Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) structural modifications, the US Air Force could safely operate [F-16C and D] Block 40-52 aircraft to 2048 and beyond,” Air Force officials said in a release.
The F-16 was a product of a push by a group of analysts within the Air Force known as the “Fighter Mafia” for a lightweight fighter—a counterpart to the F-15 Eagle in what was referred to as a “high-low mix” (with the expensive, high-tech F-15 being the “high”). The F-16 was the winner of a “fly-before-buy” bake-off—an approach to procurement that many critics of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter may be nostalgic for.
The Fighting Falcon entered service a bit less “low” than the Fighter Mafia (as embodied by John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, and Thomas Christie) may have wanted. But it has since become the workhorse fighter for over two dozen countries’ air forces. And it has been the backbone of the US’ air campaigns in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, even more than the fabled A-10—in the campaign against the Islamic State (also known as Daesh or ISIS), the F-16 has flown more than half of the 87,000 sorties flown against IS targets as of March.
A lot was made of the F-16’s “victory” over an F-35 in simulated dogfights in 2016, though the Air Force and Lockheed were quick to explain that the test was not intended as a competition. Still, the F-16’s antiquated systems would put it at a distinct disadvantage against many more modern fighters. So while the structural improvements to the aircraft will add at least 4,000 operating hours to their original life cycle of 8,000 air-hours, perhaps the most important part of the modernization program will be to its avionics, including an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar that would allow simultaneous targeting of both air and ground targets. (The current radar in the F-16C and D aircraft is a mechanically scanned array.)
While many F-16s have been shifted to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units, the F-16 is still part of the Air Force’s active force, with about 950 aircraft still in service. The Air Force has also announced plans to have F-16s take over the air defense interceptor roles currently filled by the F-15 Eagle in both the active Air Force and Air Guard—providing a less expensive alternative to keeping the F-15s in those roles in service.
The life extension also means that foreign air forces dependent on the F-16 will likely not have to worry about a reduction in the availability of parts and support. And there are new customers for F-16 aircraft keeping Lockheed’s assembly line in action: the Iraqi Air Force (which will eventually receive a total of 36) and Pakistan have F-16s on order, with India and others looking at potential F-16 buys. And Greece, the Netherland Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan (among others) have recent support contracts.
But the number of flight-hours F-16s have been clocking in combat conditions also means that there’s a spike in demand for F-16 parts. Even before the US Air Force announcement, the defense and aerospace logistics company ISO Group had anticipated a surge in maintenance for the Air Force’s F-16 fleet based on analysis of fleet data. “Using our data, we were able to project a significant rise in the need for F-16 parts for 2018,” said Alex Techoueyres, senior vice president of global sales at ISO Group. “Our system looks at part order history, part life-span, the number of active planes and other data. Before the announcement, it had already predicted an increase in F-16 part demand for 2018.”
With fully combat-capable F-35 squadrons still years away and the useful lives of many F-16s nearing their end (the F-16D rolled off assembly lines in the 1990s), that spike is not likely to ease any time soon.