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By Sebastien Roblin, The National Interest
The F-16 Fighting Falcon bears an unusual distinctions: it is one of the only top jet fighters in the world to also be cost efficient. Fast and extremely agile, the light fighter does have some shortcomings in range and payload compared to larger twin-engine fighters like the F-15 Eagle, but that was easy to forgive due to costing less than half as much—around $18 million in 1999 ($27 million in 2017 dollars). This favorable bang-for-buck ratio has not been lost on air forces across the world—the F-16 currently remains the most popular aircraft in modern military service: out of 4,500 produced, nearly 2,700 currently remain in service in around twenty-six countries. Needless to say, the cutting-edge fourth-generation fighter of the 1980s will remain with us for a good while longer.
(This first appeared several years ago.)
The F-16 was born out of the conundrum experienced by the Air Force in the Vietnam War. Fast and heavy F-4 Phantom fighters had underperformed against the North Vietnamese Air Force, due to their immature long-range missile technology and lack of aptitude for tight maneuvering in dogfights. This led a faction known as the Fighter Mafia to argue that Air Force had its design priorities all wrong, and that what was really needed was a relatively cheap, lightweight airframe that maximized energy for short-range dogfights, rather than another heavy twin-engine fighter like the F-15 Eagle that was then under development, which would doubtlessly be over-reliant on defective guided missiles. (In fact, the Eagle went on to prove it was in fact possible to create a very maneuverable twin-engine jet fighter, if you didn’t mind the cost—and air-to-air missiles would improve dramatically as well.)
Support for a light fighter eventually consolidated in the Pentagon, due to simple economics: the Air Force liked the F-15, but realized it was too expensive to equip all of its fighter squadrons, so it came to seek a “high-low” force mix. Eventually two prototypes faced off in a competitive trial in 1974: the Northrop YF-17 and the General Dynamics YF-16. The latter was unanimously found to be more responsive, while the former evolved into the Hornet fighters now serving in the Marines and U.S. Navy. The first production F-16As went on to enter service in 1980, joined by the two-seat F-16B variant.
The single-engine F-16 leveraged new design technologies to maximize kinematic performance. A powerful Pratt & Whitney F100 engine with the intake slung under the fuselage could generate an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio due to the overall lightness of the Falcon, propelling the F-16 to twice the speed of sound at high altitude. Pronounced strakes bulged out like the hood of a cobra from the fuselage to support the cropped delta wings, enabling very high roll rates. A bulging bubble canopy afforded an excellent field of view for the pilot, who was lounged in a seat angled thirty degrees back so as to mitigate the G-forces from violent maneuvers. And the F-16 could pull off very violent maneuvers indeed, becoming the first jet fighter able to pull nine Gs in a turn—tighter than any other U.S. fighter until the advent of the F-22 Raptor. This explains the type’s service in the Air Force’s Thunderbirds aerobatics team.
In fact, to maximize its maneuverability, the F-16 was intentionally designed to be aerodynamically unstable—a deficit which its Flight Control System automatically compensated for. This worked thanks to the F-16’s then-revolutionary fly-by-wire control scheme, which basically meant that the pilot’s controls were interpreted via an electronic interface instead of via hydraulic or cable-connected manual controls. Not only were fly-by-wire controls more reliable, but they made it possible for the flight computer to correct the pilot’s maneuvers as necessary to avoid exceeding the Falcon’s tolerances. Another feature was an integrated throttle in the joystick, known as Hands-On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS), enabling much smoother operation by the pilot. Fly-by-wire and HOTAS have since become standard features in modern combat aircraft.
Unlike the early model F-14 and F-15s, the Falcon was also designed as a multirole fighter, and it could lug up to seventeen thousand pounds of munitions or electronic-warfare gear on its eleven hardpoints, including a new generation of precision guided weapons such as Maverick missiles and laser-guided bombs. A twenty-millimeter Vulcan cannon in the lower fuselage served as a backup weapon.
Ironically, while the Fighter Mafia had little faith in guided missile technology, the F-16 arrived just when such weapons attained a new level of efficiency, and the Falcon’s APG-66 doppler radar, Heads Up Display and targeting computers were able to leverage these weapons to deadly effect. This was demonstrated in June 1982, when Israeli F-15s and F-16As engaged in a massive three-day air battle over the Bekaa Valley against Syrian jet fighters. The Israeli Falcons downed forty-four Syrian MiG-21s and -23s without suffering a single loss. A year earlier in 1981, the Falcons had demonstrated their versatility when eight of the brand-new fighters bombed the Osirak reactor in Baghdad with sixteen two-thousand-pound Mark 84 bombs, bringing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program to a halt.
By the mid-1980s, the currently serving F-16C and two-seat D models entered service. These boasted modernized avionics such as liquid-crystal displays and new APG-68 radars that allowed for long-range missile engagements with newer AIM-7 Sparrow and forthcoming AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles. The C and D have since undergone several more incremental upgrades, including better radars, GPS-targeted weapon capabilities and the integration of the AIM-9X Sidewinder heat-seeking missile, which the pilot can target using a helmet-mounted cuing system—permitting an F-16 to shoot at an enemy within visual range without having to line them up directly in front of its nose.
The U.S. F-16 fleet first saw action in the 1991 Gulf War, where it flew more than thirteen thousand strike missions loaded down with two-thousand-pound bombs and Maverick missiles. F-16s embarked on the largest air strike ever over downtown Baghdad during the seventy-two-ship Form Q—though two of the Falcons were shot down by air-defense missiles during the raid and their pilots captured. One squadron took on “Wild Weasel” duties by hunting down Iraqi surface-to-air missile batteries with AGM-88 Harm missiles.
The Air Force also attempted to boost the F-16 as a replacement for the A-10 Thunderbolt in the Close Air Support role by equipping F-16Cs and Ds of the 138th Fighter Squadron with Pave Claw thirty-millimeter Gatling cannon pods. However, the lightweight jets were so shaken up by the weapon’s recoil that the idea was abandoned, and the A-10 fleet survived yet another of many assassination attempts by the Air Force brass.
After the formal end of hostilities, F-16s enforcing the no-fly zone over Iraq scored the first kill using the long-range AIM-120 Scorpion missile when they downed a speedy MiG-25 Foxbat.
Since the Gulf War, the Falcon has been ubiquitous in U.S. and NATO air campaigns over the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Syria. American and Belgian F-16s shot down additional enemy fighters over Serbia and Kosovo during the 1990s, though two were brought down by Serb surface-to-air missiles. The F-16s sold abroad have also seen action in plenty of conflicts. Pakistani F-16s shot down ten Soviet and Afghan aircraft on its border during the 1980s. In 1992, two Venezuelan Falcons pilots played a key role in defeating a coup by supporters of Hugo Chávez by shooting down two rebel OV-10 Broncos and a Tucano trainer.
By one count, the Falcon has shot down seventy-six enemy aircraft, while only suffering one or two losses in aerial combat, generally under ambiguous circumstances (a Pakistani F-16 shot down another by accident; a Greek Mirage downed a Turkish F-16 in what had formerly been mock aerial combat). And of course, Falcons have continued to serve as bomb-toting workhorses for air strikes on targets in Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The most sophisticated F-16 in service today aren’t in the U.S. Air Force unit, but rather Block 62 F-16Es and Fs ordered by the United Arab Emirates. The new F-16s boast conformal fuel tanks that greatly extend the Falcon’s short range at minimal aerodynamic cost, as well as an APG-80 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar. AESA radars represent the cutting edge of fighter-borne radar technology, due to their superior resolution and lower visibility to enemy radars. Currently, an even more advanced Block 70 version is being considered for production in India. However, the costs for these newer Falcons have also skyrocketed.
Due to delays and cost overruns in the F-35 stealth fighter program, the U.S. Air Force intends to continue flying its 1,200 F-16s well into the 2040s by extending the airframe’s service life from eight to twelve thousand hours. The Fighting Falcon has proven to be a fine and versatile combat jet—and furthermore, by one count it costs $22,000 per flight hour to operate, compared to $42,000 for a twin-engine F-15.
If the agile little fighter has any shortcomings, it’s that the American F-16’s radar has fallen out of date, and that the type was never designed to carry a great deal of fuel, limiting its combat radius to just 340 miles on internal stores. The Pentagon should eventually consider reasonable measures to keep that fleet up to date, notably the incorporation of APG-83 AESA radars and the adoption of conformal fuel tanks. These issues aside, the F-16 has more than earned its current popular nickname among pilot as “the Viper,” and will continue to occupy a prominent role in military aviation across the globe for decades to come.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.