Singapore Air Show

Taiwan’s Viper Upgrade Fuels F-16 Resurgence

 - February 12, 2022, 1:00 AM
Upgraded F-16Vs of Taiwan’s 21st Tactical Fighter Wing line up on parade at Chiayi to celebrate the operational clearance for the advanced Viper variant. (Photo: ROCAF)

The Republic of China Air Force (ROCAF) declared an initial combat capability for its newly upgraded F-16V Viper aircraft on November 18, 2021, after beginning training with them in March. Taiwan scrambles the aircraft almost every day to intercept Chinese aircraft flying into its air defense zone.

The 21st Tactical Fighter Group (part of the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing at Chiayi) has fully converted to the F-16V, and 64 upgraded F-16s now are in inventory. The remainder of the wing is due to follow, along with the 5th TFW at Hualien Air Base. Taiwan aims to complete the upgrade of 141 F-16A/B aircraft by the end of 2023, and schedules call for Lockheed Martin to deliver 66 similar new-build Block 70 aircraft to the 7th TFW at Taitung Air Base by 2026.

Lockheed Martin had always planned to shut down its F-16 production line at Fort Worth, Texas, to make room for growing F-35 production numbers but thanks to a new variant of the its 48-year old fighter, the company has had to move the F-16 tooling not to a storage facility but to a new production line in Greenville, South Carolina.

That new variant is the Block 70/72—a new-build F-16 based on the modifications used to create the F-16V Viper upgrade configuration for Taiwan. A General Electric F110-GE-129 turbofan powers the Block 70, while the Block 72 uses a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229. Otherwise, the two variants are similar. Before the advent of the F-16V, the production line looked likely to run out of work once the manufacturer delivered the final Iraqi aircraft (a Block 52 F-16C 1636, 13-0031). In 2016, with no orders booked, Lockheed Martin admitted the possibility of ending F-16 production for good.

Lockheed delivered that final Iraqi aircraft on November 14, 2017, but by then Bahrain’s order for 19 Block 70 F-16s had won approval, and with further orders for the new variant looking likely to follow, the manufacturer decided to move F-16 production to its facility at Greenville. There, the company had planned to build the LM/KAI T-50A if that aircraft had won the U.S. Air Force’s T-X trainer competition. In May 2021, the USAF awarded Lockheed Martin a contract worth almost $14 billion to manufacture 129 F-16s on behalf of five foreign military partners.

Today, the Greenville production line looks set to run through to 2026, with orders for F-16 Block 70/72s from Bahrain, which ordered 16 Block 70s in June 2018; Slovakia, which announced an order for 14 Block 70/72s on July 11, 2018; Morocco, for which 25 Block 72s won approval in March 2019; Taiwan, the sale of up to 66 new Block 70s that gained approval in August 2019; and Bulgaria, whose deal for eight Block 70s received approval in July 2019.

Lockheed Martin expects the first F-16s to roll off the production line in the fourth quarter of 2022 (about 12 months behind schedule), and the first Greenville-produced F-16 will fly in late 2022. The delay largely stems from an international supplier’s staffing difficulties during the coronavirus pandemic. Plans call for production to increase after the first year, and Lockheed Martin sees a potential market for up to 300 additional Block 70/72 F-16 sales, with prospects said to include Jordan, the Philippines, and Indonesia.

The new factory in Greenville—opened three years after the F-16 Fort Worth line closed—resulted from a collaboration between Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate, which also carries responsibility for overseeing the modernization of some 405 existing F-16s to F-16V configuration.

The Block 70/72 is effectively a new-build version of the F-16V upgrade, rather than the result of a more traditional development path of retrofitting older aircraft to match a new-build standard. The U.S. abandoned the sale of the F-16V—originally developed for the ROCAF after the Obama administration killed off an earlier (2006) Taiwanese effort to acquire 66 Block 50/52 F-16C/Ds—as a result of pressure from mainland China. Instead, the ROCAF’s aging F-16A/B Block 20s would undergo modernization, and a formal request for Taiwan’s F-16 upgrade gained approval in 2011, the program being named Peace Phoenix Rising. The proposed F-16 upgrade grew in scope and depth until it represented a more advanced standard than the Block 50/52 configuration that had so antagonized mainland China.

Lockheed Martin formally unveiled its plans for the new F-16V Viper variant at the 2012 Singapore Air Show. Compared with a rival F-16 upgrade offered by BAE Systems and initially selected by South Korea, the F-16V carried the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar derived from the F-35’s AN/APG-81, whereas the configuration offered to Korea employed the AN/APG-84 Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR), a scaled-down version of the Super Hornet’s AN/APG-79.

The upgrade also includes a new mission computer, a modern commercial off-the-shelf-based avionics subsystem, a high-volume, high-speed databus, compatibility with the Rockwell Collins-Elbit JHMCS II (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System), a new Center Pedestal Display (CPD), Link 16 datalink, new Embedded GPS/INS, and upgraded electronic warfare equipment. A second phase of the upgrade—Peace Phoenix Rising 2—will add new capabilities for the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (AGCAS), radar software improvements, an advanced IFF (identification friend or foe) system, and integration of the AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile).

Lockheed Martin converted two aircraft at Fort Worth to serve as prototypes for the upgrade, the first of them making its inaugural flight on October 16, 2015. The in-country upgrade of Taiwan’s remaining F-16 fleet by the state-owned Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation (AIDC, also known as the Hanxiang Company) started in January 2017.

The F-16V upgrade subsequently won an order from South Korea, which has signed to modernize some 130 ROKAF F-16s to F-16V standards, following the cancellation of the BAE Systems-led modernization program. Some 60 Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16s also are undergoing upgrades to a broadly similar standard (including AN/APG-83 radar, a new mission computer, and JHMCS), while Greece has also announced the upgrade of 84 F-16C/D Block 52+ and Block 52 Advanced (Block 52M) aircraft to the Block 72 configuration.