Various Articles

The legacy of the F-16 "Fighting Falcon" for the emerging C&EE nations

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By Bjorn Claes

Military force can be an instrument of national power applied by political leaders for national purposes. To be useful, a nation's military force structure must be well equipped with the adequate technologies, manned with sufficient numbers, well-trained, and adequately sustained for combat action. From this, a military emerges as a credible force for either deterrence or victory.

History has shown that most European countries traditionally react to "domestic" forces to create the size and shape of their armed forces, not external threatening situations that are so often advertised. It is the domestic pressures that allocate the budgets for defense. This trend temporarily ceased when the Central and Eastern European nations of the former Soviet Union (fSU) had their militaries equipped and manned based on requirements generated from Moscow, not in Warsaw, Prague, or Budapest. Hence after the fall, the respective militaries found themselves feeling like giant limbs without a properly sized body and they were rather shocked to learn that their new bodies would be significantly smaller and thinner.

Yet despite size, the "combat capability" of an air force is judged primarily on its preparedness to fight. Therefore it pays to have all weapon systems that are state-of-the-art and sustained in a ready configuration with state-of-the-art capability, with adequate spare parts, proper training, the appropriate technical data, a minimum of support equipment and facilities, effective munitions, and sufficient fuel. If the employment doctrine is balanced with the other branches of the armed forces, then a timely, flexible, and credible deterrent force is created.

When these conditions are met, then the combat capability necessary to ensure victory over crisis exists. If the conditions are not met, then a hollow force exists. Deterrence is put at risk, inviting greater conflict and possible defeat.

Eighteen air forces worldwide have selected the multirole F-16 as the optimal, affordable fighter aircraft capability of choice. Worldwide success in implementing and supporting these many diverse F-16 programs has been proven. The Fighting Falcon has successfully adapted to customer air force requirements without regard to environment, mission demands, or stress. Having become operational in 1974, the F-16 has been in continuous combat operations somewhere around the globe since October 1981, and at this very moment logs combat hours in four different theaters.

Note also that the F-16 is the NATO standard fighter and that having this aircraft in force structures of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is the best path towards interoperability and it improves the overall standardization helpful to NATO membership. Likewise, the F-16 is the best representative aircraft that leads towards the next generation NATO standard aircraft, which will be the JSF fighter. Therefore, the Central and East European market has become a very significant one, even if it is opened-up with surplus aircraft during an initial transition period. Winning a new fighter re-structuring programs in these countries is as important to the respective air forces as it is to the regional aerospace industry. All of these programs lead eventually to the most advanced F-16. The AMRAAM (AIM-120) missiles will come with NATO membership and are not issues for the present debates. For NATO, the JSF fighter picks up where the F-16 leaves off and it will fill into the force structures of your forces during the 2015-to 2030 time frame.

The F-16s adaptability and flexibility is recognized worldwide. The interoperability of all F-16 common air forces with the USAF is constantly demonstrated in exercises such as Red Flag, NATO Tactical Air Meets, and Cobra Gold in the Pacific region. All of this is possible because there are similar procedures, tactics and equipment used throughout the extensive worldwide network or squadrons and wings / regiments. A majority of F-16 customers are repeat customers (Egypt just made its fifth order) because of their satisfaction with both results and costs and their trust that their new requirements will be met by the F-16 which has continually evolved and modernized its weapons system.

Because of its combat proven multirole capability, the F-16 is defined as a "force multiplier". Whether air-to-air or air-to-ground roles are required, the F-16 is extending a balanced force capability for air forces around the world. "Multi-role", of course, is an expensive solution when equipment, training, and weapons are considered, but its subset.... "commonalty", allows all aircraft to share common groupings of missionized kit, giving the air force the flexibility it needs, when it needs it at a minimal investment.

During Desert Storm, 249 x F-16s of all models, flew approximately 13,500 sorties with about 4,000 at night. The average sortie duration for F-16s was 3.24 hours. Almost every mission involved air refueling. The Halon fire suppression was used every time the aircraft was over enemy territory. F-16s were asked to perform combat air patrol, suppression of enemy air defenses, battlefield air interdiction (BAI), close air support (CAS) using LANTIRN navigational pod capability, deep air interdiction (AI), Wild Weasel escort, and forward air control (FAC) missions as well as psychological operations with pamphlet drops deep inside of Iraq. F-16 availability was very high having flown over 34% of the total USAF sorties and delivered thousands of tons of munitions. Very few sorties were lost to attrition or aborts.

Rapid deployment to the Arabian peninsula from the Eastern United States required 16 hours of non-stop flying by the F-16s. There were no air aborts. Tanker support provided fuel enroute. Upon arrival, the F-16s were immediately generated to alert status and were soon flying combat air patrol over the desert to signal the international coalition's resolve to halt and reverse Iraqi aggression in Kuwait.

Total coalition aircraft reached over 2,400 aircraft and they generated over 2,600 sorties per day. No missions were lost because of a lack of supplies or other logistical support. A total of 210,800 dumb bombs (77,000 tons) were dropped by USAF, USMC, and USN aircraft. Of these munitions totals, 15,500 precision guided munitions (7,400 tons or 7.3%) were dropped. About 90 per cent of the laser guided munitions are reported to have hit their targets.

Forward air controllers (FAC's) flying F-16s known as "FAST-FACS" or "KILLER-SCOUTS" led the air campaign to free Kuwait. Arriving attack aircraft would take instruction from these FAST-FAC aircraft working a designated map-grid area known as a "killing box". The airborne FAC would in turn direct other strike aircraft to targets that were being reported by the advancing ground troops. Two fast FAC's worked each killing 30 x 30 nautical mile box. This renewed use of airborne FAC's set the stage for the "Sure Strike" system which is now installed in the Aviano F-16s.

Through on-going technology insertions, modernization, scheduled improvement programs for avionics, mechanical systems, software, and airframe, the F-16 has maintained a performance, reliability and maintainability edge over all other fast-jet fighters. Currently, the EPG nations (Norway, Denmark, Belgium & the Netherlands), which have used the F-16 successfully for over a decade, are modernizing their early aircraft with a mid-life update (MLU) program. This improvement will enable older F-16"A/B" aircraft to recover their service life and match the combat capability of current production USAF F-16"C/D" aircraft.

Since 1973, American and European (Western) made fighters have been engaged in air combat at least 154 times. Air battles have occurred from the Bekaa Valley and Gulf War to around the world during counter-guerrilla operations in Venezuela and Thailand. The Fighting Falcon has accumulated 72 air-to-air kills with no air-to-air losses except for one fratricide loss by the Pakistani Air Force when an AIM-9L switched-lock onto a wingman. Engagements and Kills were recorded throughout more than 30,000 world-wide air-to-air and air-to-ground combat sorties.

For western fighter on the overall, the 154 engagements resulted in at least 210 confirmed kills with two combat losses and four fratricides. Note that the 72 F-16 kills represents 47% of that number. The fourth fratricide just recently occurred between two Japanese F-15s when one downed his leader with an AIM-9L during a training mission. There were 23 x M-61 gun kills, 2 x 30mm gun kills, 45 x AIM-7 Sparrow kills from F-15, F-18, & F-14s, 3 x AIM-120 AMRAAM kills from the F-16 and 1 x unfortunate fratricide AIM-120 Kill by an F-15C on a Blackhawk Helicopter, and 127 x IR missile kills from all aircraft utilizing either AIM-9 Sidewinder, Magic 550, or Python missiles. There are 3 x AIM-54 Phoenix Kills recorded by the Iranian Air Fore F-14A's during the First Gulf War. There were also three kills from air-to-ground munitions (aircraft airborne) and one maneuvering suicide along with a bailout that was credited as a kill.

There are additional numbers of kills from the Iranian-Iraqi air war but the numbers are incomplete and unverified, some day over 100 kills might be added to the list. During this time, only two Western aircraft were downed/damaged in air-to-air combat by Russian built aircraft. The first was a South African Mirage F-1 by a Cuban flown Angolan MiG-23 with an AA-8 Aphid (damaged), and the second, was a US Navy F/A-18C by an Iraqi flown MiG-25 Foxbat with an AA-6 Acrid (downed) during the first night of the Gulf War. We must also remember that there were at least five serious fratricides during that time span (RF-4E by an F-14A, F-16A by an F-16A, Two Blackhawks by F-15C's, and an F-15J by F-15J).

So today, with over 6.0 million total flying hours, almost 4,000 aircraft delivered, and another 600 on order. The F-16 program is still alive, well into the 21st century. The USAF has just ordered the first six of 120 new F-16C's that will round-out the USAF force structure at the turn of the century. New customer programs are expected in the Philippines, Jordan, Morocco, Poland, Hungry, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Argentina, Brazil, Romania, Honduras, and Chile in a reasonable time and pursuant with US policy certification. New aircraft programs are being seriously worked with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Norway and the United Kingdom.

The list of F-16 improvements and growth features is now longer than ever after the major cockpit growth step function was made with the block 40, block 50, European MLU, and Taiwan block 20 aircraft. This once and for all moved the technology level of the F-16 well past the F/A-18, Mirage 2000, Gripen or any of the Russian developed MiG/Su aircraft. FLIR night navigation and attack systems have been incorporated in chin pods, wing pods, or internal configurations. Combining advanced inertial navigation with the ring-laser gyro and GPS has brought never before realized "passive" accuracy into the cockpit as well as system improvements in the non-stealthy emitters. Both the Gunsmoke and William Tell competitions were won by F-16s, totally unexpected by the USAF, but not the Falcon community.

More important is the fact that the USAF has started to demonstrate a willingness to continue with their purchasing of new and advanced models of the F-16. In the "1995 Fighter Configuration Plan", there are several additional F-16 issues such as the reconnaissance pod (56 aircraft), electronic warfare management system (EWMS), color displays, an extensive avionics MSIP IV arrangement for 250 aircraft, the AIM-9X integration, airframe strengthening, and helmet mounted sights. All of this amounts to a big part of new budget and commitment.

Today, in Aviano, Italy, where NATO warplanes mass for the final execution of missions in the Bosnian peace process, only the F-16 stands configured with a full wing or aircraft configured with integrated GPS and ring-laser gyro navigation, digital terrain mapping imbedded in the navigation computers, fully integrated mission planning and intelligence fusion system with cartridge cockpit loaders, and onboard data links that can receive direct target voice, coordinates, or pictures from ground troops, helicopters, or airborne/space command and control nodes. All inputs of which can be compared with onboard radar, FLIR, or electro-optical imagery, correlated with onboard intelligence information, and then presented to the pilot as steering and weapons envelope cues while slewing attack pods and weapons to the precise target coordinates within 1 meter accuracy. Accuracy so great, that weapons can be dropped in the weather on aircraft symbology alone and still be within a couple meters of a designated GPS target aim-point. This capability has been in work on the F-16 for years, and is effective but has been deployed to Italy during the last six months. This capability is not in the Marine or British Harriers, not in the RAF Tornado or Jaguar, not in the F/A-18, nor in the F-15E Strike Eagle..... it is an exclusive configuration for the F-16 and continues to be improved.

Air power proved in the Second Gulf War was that it has become the most important initial element in the projection of force that a nation could have. It earned this claim because of its flexibility, and its capability to deliver a tailored punch which could be exceedingly accurate, reliable, and timely. It could be recalled, and was quickly reconstituted. In past wars, particularly Vietnam and Korea, Air power played a significant role but failed to exploit its full potential. In the end, it basically generated hundreds of thousands of sorties simply to justify the assemblage of the large armadas of aircraft. Too many of us went home from Vietnam feeling like we had our butts kicked by a bunch of rice farmers. The flying was fun, but we didn't do anything that lasted. The Vietnam Air War did not have a central "win" theme, and because of that:

  • everything was on time except nothing was timely
  • successful engagements were rarely followed up
  • operations were plagued by the poorly trained
  • success, when it came, was too late
  • and for the most part the targets weren't worth it anyway
If we turn our attention for a minute on the MiG-29 "Fulcrum". Improved versions do and do-not have an extended "fat-back" or regular dorsal fairings. In fact what has happened is that both the basic MiG-29"B" and the more advanced MiG-29"S"/"SE"/"SM" models can have both a larger dorsal or not have one. The Malaysian MiG-29"SE" does not have a larger dorsal fairing. By the way, the "E" in "SE" stands for "English cockpit" not "export".

There are constant references to an advanced MiG-29"M" and that is in fact a very special aircraft and as best we can tell that only six were built after the several naval prototypes (MiG-29"K"). The real "M" does have a full electronic FCS, but remember, to date there are still only six flying prototypes and no other MiG-29s have fly-by-wire flight control systems, they are mechanical-hydraulic.

So far, around 1425 x MiG-29s of all types have been produced for 21 air forces around the world and you have to add that MiG-29 engines power aircraft in 22 air forces remembering that South Africa has installed the RD-33 into the their F-1s as an upgrade. This entire fleet of MiG-29s have not as yet reached one million flight hours and they are sharing an accident rate of around 10 losses per 100,000 flight hours, the F-16 is 2.4 right now, or 4 times better and the F/A-18 is holding over 7.5. In combat, over twenty MiG-29s have been downed or destroyed, and the only kill it has achieved was a fratricide on a MiG-23 wingman during the Gulf War.

There are some very simple facts that go along with the F-16, and surprisingly, these points are often left out when talking with potential customers. The F-16 aircraft has been flying continuously in combat operations since 1981, when the Israeli Air Force started to introduce the Ramat David (Base 1) Wing into Lebanon. That is fifteen years of continuous combat experience with 18 nations. The total F-16 fleet is over 6,000,000 hours of total flight time. A good 15% of that total were missions flown under risk. The numbers of actual combat coded missions for the Israeli, Pakistani, Venezuelan, Royal Thai, Dutch, and US Air Forces has exceeded 50,000, but no actual numbers have ever been officially published. During this time frame some 38 mission "role-types" have been flown which basically covers the entire spectrum of possible utilization's for fast jet combat aircraft.

In air-to-air combat, the numbers have slowly risen to 74, with the Israeli Air Force recording 52 (47 personal awards with 5 debates); the Pakistani Air Force with 13 total, however they recognize officially only 11 because of cross-border violations as to where the target aircraft were downed. The Venezuelan Air Force achieved 3 kills during the last coup attempt by two pilots from Grupo 16 who launched without flight gear (helmets/masks only) during the ground assault on El Liberador. Because it was brother-against-brother the kills have not become official scores.

The United States Air Force had more than 240 x F-16s of all types in the Gulf War but only achieved air-to-air kills after the war. There were two kills achieved, one from the forces patrolling the southern No-Fly Zone over Iraq (Southern Watch: 27Dec92) and one in the northern region (Provide Comfort: 17Jan93). Both F-16s achieved AMRAAM (AIM-120) kills and there is still an interesting debate over whether the 17 January 1993 kill was actually scored against a MiG-29 and not the "officially" recognized MiG-23. Official sources now identify the kill as a MiG-29. It is important to know that the F-16 faced-off with the MiG-29 in a BVR (beyond visual range) environment, and WON. Then of course, we come into the "triple kill" plus one over Bosnia during 28 February 1994. That netted the third AMRAAM (AIM-120) kill by an F-16 along with three additional Sidewinder (AIM-9M) kills.

You add the total number of "KILLS" and it comes to 74, of which 64 have resulted in official pilot recognition. These all came within the span of around 50,000 combat missions. During those missions there were NO F-16s downed in air combat. As I mentioned earlier, there was one F-16 downed in a fratricide involved with the Pakistani Air Force when a flight leader was tracking a Su-22 (Fitter H) and fired an AIM-9L, but the missile switched lock.

During these combat missions, the Israeli, Royal Thai, Venezuelan, Dutch, and Pakistani Air Forces, all have not encountered a single combat loss. Only the USAF has lost F-16s in combat with 4 officially recorded as of today. There were four originally during the Gulf War, but the premature bomb detonation under one aircraft was eventually ruled out. Then we have the O'Grady SAM loss over Bosnia.

The McAir F/A-18 people brag about the two VMFA(AW)-314 aircraft that were hit by handheld IR SAM's in the engine nozzle area and recovered to be fixed and flown again. There is speculation that one F-16 might have been hit by a handheld IR SAM during the Gulf War as a contributing factor to its loss. The other two were from an SA-3 and SA-6 SAM. The Israeli Air Force has had two F-16s hit by handheld IR SAM's and despite damage to the nozzle area the aircraft recovered. Also, one of these IAF F-16s had its stabilator plane blown off and it did not deter the pilot from an uneventful landing. Both F-16 and F-18 aircraft flew over 10,000 combat missions during the Gulf War, but the Israeli Air Force has flown over 10,000 more by the time Saddam invaded Kuwait. The Israeli's attribute small size, good camouflage, smart pilots, good intelligence, and aircraft agility as the keys to their survivability. There is no data base today that can show decisively that single-engine survivability is more or less that of a twin-engine aircraft.

Despite larger and more expensive alternatives, eighteen air forces bet correctly that technology and the F-16s phased growth program moved hand-in-hand to meet new threats, even during radically changing times. Weight and size have grown with equipment and capability, however engine thrust and aero-efficiency have improved to maintain the impressive thrust-to-weight ratio which is the hallmark of the F-16. System complexity has increased many fold, however computer and processing capability along with more efficient architecturing of the subsystems has reduced component size, weight, and software back-log while increasing thousands of times the processing power needed to perform tasks. Aircraft signatures have been reduced, survivability systems enhanced, and lethality increased through both active and passive sensor improvements, state-of-the art navigation, and the precision accuracy of several families of new weapons.

The optimal configuration of a fighter force would be to include a near-perfect early warning system, a perfect onboard target identification system, extra-long range missiles, aircraft with superior range/payload and sensor capabilities, and superbly trained pilots. One without the rest leaves a big gap in capability and often a sense of false security. Most air forces try to get as much as they can, but the first wall they come up against is the incredible costs associated with the entire package. When money becomes available, then the releasability issues play havoc with finally achieving a balanced and credible capability that the nation can depend upon. Most countries prefer to understand their limitations then build their air force around known strengths investing in things that matter and are achievable within the constraints imposed by their budgets and requirements.

What has become important is that a modern air force today must examine itself carefully. To be credible at home, it must first function in a more traditional way that inspires confidence that it is both professional and cost conscience. The F-16 was made to be just that. It generates many sorties at minimal cost and does it consistently for its entire life span. Surprisingly we often forget that point and rarely layout the statistics to prove it. To do any mission the same as an F-16, a corresponding Kfir C-7, Mirage F-1 or Mirage 2000, and F/A-18 must carry fuel tanks and press its subsystems harder to accomplish the same results. The average $2,200/hour rate of the F-16 is always met by figures much higher as for instance the $4,500 of the F/A-18, and $4,300 for the Gripen, and over $20,000 for the Tornado.

Once the air force is certified as a credible flying organization by its nation, and the required hours per pilot are guaranteed to be respectably above the NATO lowside standard of 180 hours/year, then more exotic weapons, systems, and tactics can safely and effectively be employed and maintained. Like it or not, if the flying side of the air force canÎt produce the necessary training sorties, then all the advanced equipment in the world will not benefit it in the least, and what you will have is a 'flying club', and not much more. Now some sort of a 'flying club' may be just what the customer wants, and if so, advanced systems will only make things more difficult.

So the argument for better early warning/command and control (C4I), onboard IFF/SIFF, long range radar, BVR missiles, and data link systems has to be prefaced by professional excellence and a real need. Only from that jump-off point is it worth the effort. In evolving air forces it may be possible to defer these issues until the proper operational level is achieved. That usually means there would be a four to five year preparation build-up period.

Now, after this fundamental level of operational capability is assured, we can look at the tradeoffs between the various advanced systems by type and function. But the user must understand that he is wasting his money if he leaps into things without preparing for the risks and responsibilities.

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