F-35 Delay Forces $3 Billion Upgrade Request for U.S. Air Force F-16s

 - November 4, 2011, 5:00 AM
The U.S. Air Force plans to upgrade 300 to 350 Block 40/52 F-16s to compensate for delays in receiving the F-35 Lightning II. (Photo: U.S. Air Force)

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.


Updating of the F-16 seems to be a cost effective no-brainer task. This update should be accomplished by making funds available from reducing the number of Air Force and Navy / Marine F-35 airframes acquired. The F-35 program cost continues to march ever higher. And, we do not yet have sufficient proof that the F-35 will do all of its assigned missions.
In lieu of buying new aircraft programs, put the funds into aircraft with known and conflict - demonstrated capabilities plus logistic support infrastructure renewal efforts.
Retired USAF aircraft maintenance logistics officer

I agree Bob.

It would be more prudent and a more strategic decision at this point to buy upgraded, proven and already operational model jets of the 4.5 generation classification. Likewise, these confirmed block 40/50 F-16 upgrades and SLEP have long been part of the expected future force structure as a supplement during USAF's long transition to a 5th gen Air Froce. To NOT fund this SLEP Program would only add to a greater capability gap than will already be faced, given the massive cost increases and delays with the F-35.

There are simply too many uncertainties in both cost, schedule and technical areas remaining with the F-35 Program, so to not push ahead now (arguably late as it is) with robust stopgap contingencies would add increased risks to future deterrence value.

Both objectives can be achieved. Flight testing on the F-35 has actually shown it to be one of the most capable tactical airframes ever designed. Testing goals have been surpassed 2 years running and foreign partners are very happy with the state of the program. The F-16 SLEP will assure the Air Force maintains capability until the F-35 enters active service. If the Air Force increased it's order of F-35 airframes the flyaway cost can be reduced considerably and the additional airframes will be well worth the cost. Most recently High Angle of Attack testing has been a complete success. There is a third option as well. The F-16 line is still operational in Fort Worth. The Air Force might want to consider ordering 100 or 150 Block 60 Desert Falcons.