U.S. Air Force Certifies Structural Modifications of F-16 Fighter

 - April 19, 2017, 3:08 PM
An F-16 undergoes durability testing at Lockheed Martin's full-scale durability test facility in Fort Worth. (Photo: Lockheed Martin)

The U.S. Air Force has validated that F-16 Block 40-52 fighters could safely fly 4,000 hours beyond their design service lives with planned structural modifications. Manufacturer Lockheed Martin announced the military flight release (MFR) authorization earlier this month, weeks after confirming that it will relocate F-16 production from Fort Worth, Texas, to Greenville, S.C.

The MFR from the Air Force’s Technical Airworthiness Authority authorizes F-16 Block 40-52 flight operations to 12,000 hours from the current design limit of 8,000 hours, Lockheed Martin announced on April 12. The formal airworthiness assessment takes into account structural modifications of a proposed service life extension program (SLEP) that would keep F-16s flying into the 2040s if the Air Force decides to fund the effort. The manufacturer has set a notional SLEP goal of 300 F-16C/D Block 40-52 aircraft.

Lockheed Martin said it also plans to seek a military type certificate to validate the F-16’s service life beyond 12,000 hours using data from extended durability testing.

The SLEP covers structural modifications and does not include modernization programs such as the F-16V upgrade planned for South Korean and Taiwanese fighters, incorporating Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 active electronically scanned array fire-control radar, an Elbit Systems of America 6-by-8 center pedestal display and an upgraded mission computer. The U.S. Air Force planned a similar upgrade of 300 F-16s under the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (Capes) program, which was cancelled in 2014 over budget constraints.

“Combined with F-16 avionics modernization programs like the F-16V, SLEP modifications demonstrate that the Fighting Falcon remains a highly capable and affordable fourth generation option for the U.S. Air Force and international F-16 customers,” Lockheed Martin asserted. “Structural modifications enable the F-16 to fly well into the future; avionics and capability upgrades ensure that it can fight when it gets there.”

In late March, Lockheed Martin confirmed to Defense One and other media that it will relocate F-16 production from Fort Worth to Greenville over the next two years, freeing space in the former facility as it ramps up production of the F-35 Lightning II. The manufacturer has production contracts from foreign military sales customers to continue deliveries from Fort Worth through late this year, but it declined to specify its F-16 backlog. The U.S. State Department recently informed Congress that it supports selling 19 F-16s to Bahrain without demanding the country improve its human rights record—a precondition of the previous Obama administration, Bloomberg reported March 29.

Responding to an AIN inquiry, Lockheed Martin said it expects to create between 200 and 250 new jobs in Greenville, depending on contract requirements. The manufacturer already has facilities there it has used to assemble and test the T-50A jet it proposes for the U.S. Air Force’s 350-aircraft advanced jet trainer program.

“The existing infrastructure in Greenville can support emerging F-16 production requirements. At this time, we are not planning to expand any facilities in Greenville for F-16 production,” Lockheed Martin said.