Air Force Holding Off Developing New F-16 Replacement For Now

U.S. Air Force officials have confirmed that a portion of the branch’s F-16 Viper fighter jet fleet will remain in service for the foreseeable future. While attempts to nail down the aircraft’s retirement timeline and potential replacement have been going on for some time now, it would appear that the Air Force is prioritizing the modernization efforts that will keep F-16s in the air for years, if not decades, before deciding on what will come next. 

According to an article by Air Force Magazine’s John Tirpak, a recent press conference held during the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) Life Cycle Industry Days event provided a number of Air Force officials with the chance to discuss the F-16s’ fate. The general consensus throughout the briefing was that the Air Force isn’t in any rush to replace the decades-old Viper family much less finalize what that replacement might be just yet. For now, the service is planning to move forward with the extensive upgrades and modernization efforts that have maintained the F-16’s status as a “numbers-builder in the combat air forces,” the article explained. 

The 114th Fighter Wing’s block 40 F-16 aircraft sit on the flight line at Joe Foss Field, S.D. August 25, 2011. Credit: Master Sgt. Nancy Ausland/U.S. Air Force

To some, this may come as a surprise considering its direct contradiction with the Air Force’s seemingly staunch plan to buy 1,763 F-35A fighters in hopes of eventually using them, in part, to replace the F-16. While it does seem to conflict with that plan in some capacity, the Air Force in March said it isn’t backing away from its F-35A acquisition plans. However, the service’s recent comments still call into question whether the Air Force will ultimately pursue its stated procurement goal for the F-35A program of record as it keeps insisting it will.

If anything, with the F-16s now being prepped for their long-term role, it is likely the 1,763 figure will see some adjustment. But really, the hot-button 1,763 number has always seemed aspirational, and many factors have changed within the Air Force and its force structure, as well as emerging technologies, since it was established, well beyond keeping some F-16s around through the next couple of decades and possibly longer.

The primary initiatives that have allowed the F-16 to continue flying are the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) and Post Block Integration Team (PoBIT). First announced in 2017, SLEP is intended to extend the flight hours of roughly 300 of the youngest F-16s from Blocks 40/42 through Blocks 50/52 to keep them combat-ready through 2048. Carried out in partnership with the F-16’s manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the AFLCMC, the modifications to the F-16 since achieved under SLEP have been largely responsible for tacking years of additional life onto the jet’s operational service. 

An 80th Fighter Squadron Block 40 F-16D flies in support of exercise Max Thunder. Credit: Master Sgt. Jason Wilkerson/U.S. Air Force

“The program combines a dozen structural modifications into one repeatable package – from bulkheads to wings and canopy,” read an Air Force press release posted a year into SLEP’s implementation. “The jets, which became operational in 1979, and were originally deemed air worthy for up to 8,000 flight hours, will have their life extended up to 12,000 flying hours – possibly more.”

According to Air Force Magazine, SLEP is now nearing completion. The outlet quoted Col. Tim Bailey, AFLCMC’s F-16 program manager, as saying that these few million dollars worth of upgrades per jet are responsible for offering the F-16s in question an expected additional 20 years of life.

PoBIT, on the other hand, is a more recent program first announced in February of this year and is one of the largest aircraft modernization efforts in U.S. Air Force history. According to the service, hundreds of F-16s will undergo up to 22 modifications over the next several years intended to improve the aircraft’s lethality to help maintain the Air Force’s combat readiness as it mulls over the various possibilities for a future successor. As we discussed in a previous article, the initiative will include:

608 F-16s from Blocks 40/42 and 50/52 — the service’s youngest F-16s — will receive a total of 22 modifications under the program. Planned updates include the addition of a Center Display Unit, a Programmable Data Generator, and “several other key hardware components to modernize the aircraft.” In addition, the F-16 will receive the AN/APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar (AESA), new electronic warfare capabilities, advanced mission computer, and a communications suite upgrade that includes an updated Link-16 datalink capability. The USAF says this new communication system will convert the fleet to “a high-speed data network.”

More details about PoBIT can be read in this War Zone article, here.

U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility Dec. 17, 2020. Credit: Staff Sgt. Sean Carnes/U.S. Air Force

Air Force Magazine also noted that most of the Air Force’s upgraded F-16s will eventually wear the “Have Glass” finish. The radar-absorbing coating that has been in service for years now in various forms will replace the Viper’s two-tone, gray-on-gray paint scheme. It helps reduce the jet’s radar-cross section, thus enhancing its survivability, even if to a limited degree.

A Have Glass V 480th Fighter Squadron F-16CM Fighting Falcon. Credit: Staff Sgt Trevor T McBride/U.S. Air Force

As first implied by Bailey’s comments on the costly nature of these upgrades, though, Lockheed Martin is also looking to digital engineering to potentially alleviate some of the expenses associated with modernizing the F-16. In what would be carried out in partnership with the company’s Skunk Works division, the Air Force hired Wichita State University’s National Institute of Aviation Research to create a digital model, or “digital twin,” of an F-16 to help support such efforts. This fits with Lockheed Martin’s continued work to squeeze relevant capabilities, while balanced against cost, out of the F-16 design as demand stays strong for the type.

Aside from the dedicated AFLCMC modernization programs, Air National Guard Vipers have also undergone a significant upgrade. In June of this year, Northrop Grumman and the Air Force announced that the team had completed the installation of AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array radars, also known as Scalable Agile Beam Radars (SABR), aboard 72 Air National Guard Block 30 F-16Cs. 

A U.S. Air Force F-16C Fighting Falcon from the New Jersey Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing “Jersey Devils” taxis at Atlantic City Air National Guard Base, N.J. on May 17, 2014. Credit: Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/U.S. Air Force

Mark Rossi, Northrop Grumman’s director of SABR programs, told The War Zone that the addition of the SABR was the closest thing an F-16 could get to F-35 performance within the limitations of the jet. While the F-35 was initially intended to be the fifth-generation replacement for the F-16, at least in part being that it has already replaced many Vipers, it has also experienced many delays and cost growth, and it would appear that the Air Force is doing what it can to prevent a capability gap from forming by upgrading its best F-16s.

“There are … almost 900 F-16s in the Air Force … Any mod becomes an expensive mod when you have that many airplanes,”  said Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft, to Air Force Magazine. “So, we’ll see. See what it takes.”

With SLEP handling the structural upgrades and PoBIT taking care of the F-16’s mission systems modernization, the ground that both of these programs together will cover led Bailey to tell reporters during the briefing that he expects to have hundreds of F-16s in active service for decades to come. However, in light of the decision to dump large funds into the F-16 platform, White also revealed to the media that he hasn’t received any instructions to begin working on the F-16’s successor — well, at least the successor to the F-16s that will be modernized. 

An F-35A Lightning II pilot assigned to the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont Air National Guard, prepares for launch during routine flying operations at the Vermont Air National Guard base, South Burlington, Vermont, Sept. 23, 2020. Credit: A1C Jana Somero/U.S. Air Force

The Air Force’s search for its future multirole fighter, at least informally designated as MR-F or MR-X, remains largely forward-looking at this point in time. In 2021, Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. revealed that he would be launching a six-month tactical air study to investigate the service’s future force mix. That structure was then reduced down from seven fighter types to “4+1”, made up of the F-22 slated to be replaced by the Next Generation Air Dominance system, the F-35, the F-15E/F-15EX, the F-16, and the A-10 as the plus one slated to phase out in 2030. According to White, 4+1 is still the strategy, although he admitted talks about MR-X are ongoing.

“While I don’t have any firm requirement [for an F-16 replacement] I know the MR-F piece is going to continue to be looked at, because at some point we’ll have to have a replacement [for the F-16,]” White told Air Force Magazine.

In the Air Force Magazine article, White also touches on how the Boeing T-7 training aircraft is in consideration as a replacement to the F-16, but that there’s no requirement passed to AFLCMC to evaluate the aircraft as a possible successor at present. In 2020, Serbia had its eyes on operating the T-7A in a dedicated combat role to potentially replace its fleet of G-4 Super Galeb jet trainers and J-22 Orao ground attack planes, which would make it the first country to do so, but the plan has remained just that. Regardless, it is no secret that the T-7 has the ability to be adapted into the light fighter role for export or domestic use.

A Boeing T-7A Red Hawk trainer. Credit: Boeing

There is also the potential for an ‘F-35E’ or a different next-generation aircraft entirely to take the place of the remaining F-16 Viper sometime down the line. However, Brown had previously been eyeing the possibility of procuring a clean-sheet, more affordabile “fifth-gen-minus” fighter that balances low-cost against low-observability and performance and leverages the latest digital design and manufacturing capabilities. The MR-F/MR-X initiative seems to mirror this idea, but the Air Force has decided not to pursue it as a formal program at this time, though it could become the route it takes as the years pass and a need for an F-16 replacement draws closer. Clearly, studies will continue and the high-end Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program will likely have some influence on such a concept as time goes on.

Then there is the question of unmanned combat air vehicles — ranging from high-end types to loyal wingmen that will collaborate directly with manned platforms. They are set to rapidly proliferate in the Air Force’s inventory and they will have to be paid for somehow and maintained by someone. The F-16 fleet could potentially be reduced, or at least heavily augmented in a reduced state, with these systems. The unmanned component is truly a wild card when it comes to the USAF’s force structure conundrum, but it seems clear that some existing fighter squadrons will be operating drones instead of fighters in the not-so-distant future according to comments by the service’s top brass.

Whatever the Air Force decides to do, it would appear that the much-improved F-16 Vipers will allow the service the time it needs to really figure out what it actually wants.

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