The US Air Force could soon order new Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters, nearly two decades after signing the last production contract, owing to the high cost of F-35 aircraft.
The Air Force seems to have changed its mind after the latest review of the tactical aircraft portfolio, which promises to deliver a major acquisition shake-up of the force in the fiscal 2023 budget request.
The review could result in the production funding of fighters such as the F-16s, Boeing F-15EXs, and a range of “attritable aircraft”, ending the monopoly of Lockheed’s F-35A under such profile.
In the military jargon, ‘attritable’ designs refer to those that can be reused at least several times with minimal maintenance.
Experts are blaming the exorbitant costs of the F-35 for the decision. The Aviation Week & Space Technology also reports that the US Air Force is reviewing its tactical requirements for the 2020s and may soon start purchasing more F-16s. The force already has around 900 F-16s, including 783 single-seat F-16Cs and 151 F-16Ds.
The US Air Force is currently grappling with maintaining an aging fleet of fighters and looming capacity shortfalls with the delivery of replacement aircraft getting inordinately delayed over the next decade.
The internal fighter roadmap provided by the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability that began in 2018 envisages acquisition of new F-16s and ‘attritable’ UAS (Unmanned Autonomous Systems), as part of the ongoing review. The roadmap called for restricting F-35 orders at around 1,050, which was earlier set at 1,763 by the US Air Force.
“The review opens the possibility that the Air Force could order four different fighters — the F-35A, F-15EX, F-16 Block 70/72, and a next-generation fighter — while continuing to operate the Lockheed F-22 and the A-10,” Aviation Week & Space Technology reported. The force is considering using non-stealthy jets once again over the fifth-generation F-35s, giving them permanent combat roles in the decades to come.
According to reports, the frustration with the exceedingly high costs involved with operating stealthy jets in Pentagon is now in the open. The then-Acting Defense Secretary Christopher Miller, while answering a question on F-35s from a reporter, referred to the country’s most expensive fighter jet program as a “piece of shit”.
Although armed with decades-old technology, the new F-16 boats an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, longer-range AMRAAM radar-guided missiles, and fuselage-conforming fuel tanks. The last time the US Air Force bought a new F-16 was in the early 2000s, and new upgrades were done because of the demand from other countries.
The new F-16 Block 70/72 or F-16V brings multiple modern enhancements to the battlefield with its APG-83 AESA radar, infrared search and track targeting capability, a new flight control computer, and the Auto GCAS, a feature that helps avoid the aircraft hit the ground if the pilot becomes unconscious or disoriented.
With each F-35A costing about $110 million, the US Air Force’s target of replacing the F-16 fleet with the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter has hit a roadblock.
Adding to the USAF’s woes was the huge operating costs that have annoyed the top brass at the Pentagon. No one had imagined that the force would be buying the non-stealthy fighters again after being made to believe the F-35 won’t cost more than $50 million.
The US Air Force is now on its way to induct the F-16 as a low-cost fighter—more than 40 years after it first entered service. Although military experts question whether the US would be giving its combat edge by bringing back the obsolete fighters into the service when its rivals are investing heavily in the ultra-modern combat jets.