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The U.S. Air Force will proceed with a service life extension program (SLEP) and avionics upgrade of 300 to 350 F-16 Fighting Falcons to compensate for an expected two-year slip in operational readiness of the F-35A Lightning II, service leaders told the U.S. Congress on November 2.
The service estimates that the program to extend the service life of Block 40/52 F-16 airframes from 8,000 to 10,000 flight hours would add eight years to the life of the aircraft and cost some $3 million per aircraft. The avionics upgrade would cost another $6.4 million per aircraft. In the Fiscal Year 2012 budget request, the Air Force said that it is studying an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an improved defensive suite and datalink enhancements.
“We’re looking for capability through 2030,” said Maj. Gen. Jay Lindell, Air Force director of global power programs. “We expect some viability out of the F-16 fleet if we [are] going to spend that much money to SLEP the aircraft.”
Testifying before the House subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces, Air Force leaders said that the Fiscal Year 2012 budget contains $108 million to begin research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) of the structural SLEP and to procure the first three shipsets, and to begin RDT&E for the avionics upgrade. The improvements would cover about half of more than 600 available Block 40/52 aircraft.
In written testimony, the Air Force said F-16 availability in FY2011 is 65.5 percent. “Extensive flight hours and stressing mission profiles” led to the current structural modification, known as FalconStar. This replaces known life-limited structural components and maintains the original design airframe life of 8,000 flight hours. This program is scheduled for completion in Fiscal Year 2013. Other inspections have revealed bulkhead cracks in 428, or about two-thirds, of Block 40/52 F-16s. Most of these bulkheads have been repaired or replaced.
Lawmakers asked Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps leaders when they expect initial operational capability (IOC) of the F-35. The officers concurred that IOC for each service will be “event driven,” and said more information will be available once an F-35 integrated master schedule is completed this year. Nevertheless, the Marine Corps now expects IOC of the F-35B in late 2014 or 2015. The Air Force anticipates a two-year slip to 2018 for the F-35A.