Plenty of life is left for exported F-16
Lockheed Martin may be focusing a large proportion of its promotional efforts on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, but the company insists there is still a lot of life left in the F-16 and that production could continue alongside that of the F-35 for some years. Meanwhile, the company has outlined a sustainment and supportability plan that projects to at least 2040.
In what has been the world’s largest international industrial program, Lockheed Martin and its partners have delivered more than 4,400 F-16s in 132 distinct variants. The F-16 is the backbone of U.S. airpower and the type has flown 57 percent of the operational sorties in the Central Command theater. The customer base spans 25 nations, and 14 among them have notched up 53 follow-on buys. The worldwide fleet has racked up more than 14 million flying hours.
Orders for the F-16 currently stand at 4,520, with backlog of 86. This takes F-16 production through to May 2013. Pakistan received its first three of 18
new aircraft last month, while Morocco is due to receive its first next year. Other outstanding orders are for Egypt and Turkey.
Bill McHenry, director of business development for the F-16, estimates that between 100 and 200 more new-build aircraft could be added to the current order book. As well as further follow-on orders, Lockheed Martin is marketing the aircraft to several new nations, the most important of which is India, where the F-16IN, based on the APG-80 AESA-equipped Block 60, is one of six competitors for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Other prospects include Romania, as a follow-on to a proposed batch of used F-16s, and Iraq. As part of the latter nation’s rebuilding, there is a stated requirement for an ultimate force of 96 fighters, and the F-16 is a leading candidate in both new-build and secondhand form.
With more than 3,000 F-16s in service worldwide, Lockheed Martin has put in place a sustainment roadmap to keep the F-16 viable for another three decades at least, but will not change the shape. “We don’t see a need for any aerodynamic changes,” said McHenry. “Nine G is doing just fine, and there’s no need to go beyond.” There are structural issues as aircraft age, however, and various life-extension programs are either in place or being examined.
More important is a technology insertion path to maintain the F-16 in the front line as fifth-generation fighters begin to proliferate. AESA radars are one obvious answer to keeping the F-16 at the cutting edge, as are the provision of low-probability-of-intercept datalink through which information can flow between F-16s and later-generation fighters in a networked battlespace. A continuing core-computer capability upgrade path provides the processing power to handle increased amounts of data, while the F-16 will adopt new weapons to maintain the increase in precision targeting.