Following the recent order for 16 F-16V Block 70 fighters for Bahrain, and the announcement last week that Slovakia has selected 14 of the same version to replace its aging MiG-29 fighters, the Lockheed Martin F-16 is underlining its credentials in the fighter marketplace. Although the prototype first flew in January 1974, the type remains a force to be reckoned with in competition with much younger rivals.
“We’re seeing a remarkable resurgence in interest in the F-16,” remarked Randy Howard, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 business development executive. “A lot of it has to do with the Block 70.”
The current version, also known as the F-16V, brings together a host of recent developments, including conformal fuel tanks, revised cockpit with two 10- by 10-cm (4- by 4-inch) side displays and a 15- by 20-cm (6- by 8-inch) center pedestal display, auto ground collision avoidance system, advanced helmet-mounted cueing sight, Sniper ATP targeting pod, and Link 16 datalink.
Most importantly, it is the first F-16 with an AESA “E-scan” radar in the form of the Northrop Grumman APG-83. This radar has greater than 90 percent software commonality and more than 70 percent hardware commonality with the APG-81 radar of the F-35. Indeed, much of the Block 70 technology has been drawn from the F-35 program and can continue to benefit from similar updates in the future. It’s not all a one-way street either: F-16V technology such as the Auto-GCAS is finding its way into the F-35.
APG-83 and the F-16V’s new mission computer and high-speed data network provide the aircraft with advanced radar capabilities, such as the ability to track 20 air-to-air targets, with up to six prioritized. The radar can work in interleaved air-to-air and air-to-surface modes, the latter including mapping to 160 nm (296 km). At the same time, the solid-state radar is considerably more reliable than the earlier mechanically scanned radars.
Lockheed Martin is offering the F-16V as both new-build machines and as an upgrade to older Block 40/50 aircraft. The upgrade could be applied to earlier Block 30 machines, but the process would be more invasive and might not be cost-effective for high-time aircraft, the company said.
In terms of structural life, 841 of the U.S. Air Force’s F-16s will go through a service life-extension program that raises their lives from 8,000 to 12,000 hours, sufficient to keep them in service until at least 2045. One test aircraft was put through a simulated life of more than 27,000 hours. New-production aircraft are now being built as 12,000-hour airframes.
With production at Fort Worth coming to an end to provide more space for F-35 assembly, future F-16s—beginning with those for Bahrain—will be built in Greenville, South Carolina, where the production line will start receiving components next year. The first aircraft being delivered from the new plant is expected in late 2021/early 2022.
Howard reported that there are four F-16V upgrade programs under way, covering more than 400 aircraft. He also envisions a realistic market for more than 400 new aircraft.
Of the 4,588 F-16s built to date, nearly 3,000 remain operational in 25 countries, providing good potential for upgrades or follow-on orders. As well as pointing out that the aircraft has flown more than 400,000 combat sorties and has a 75:0 kill-to-loss ratio in air combat, Howard noted that there have been 56 cases of repeat orders throughout the F-16’s history.
Among the most prominent new-build opportunities is that for India, where Lockheed Martin has offered to move the production line if selected. The company has teamed with Tata to compete for the Indian requirement. There would be some local modifications required, including the installation of probe/drogue refueling gear.