Vipers are set to get an overhaul, but will anyone want them?
It’s a truism that planes — and almost anything else for that matter — eventually get old and worn out, their wings, fuselages and other parts weakening to the point of failure under the strain of day-to-day use. This is one of the Pentagon’s more compelling arguments for sticking with the troublesome F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
It’s equally true that brand new parts can give older aircraft a new lease on life. Just look at the B-52 bomber.
In December 2016, the U.S. Air Force announced it was looking for companies to overhaul hundreds of F-16 fighter jets. One half of the so-called “service life extension program” — aka SLEP — would be to find a firm to build the parts kits, while the other part of the plan would involve hiring contractors to actually install them on the Vipers.
The parts would give each jet nearly 6,000 more hours of flight time, according to draft descriptions of the project. If each plane flies approximately 300 hours every year, that’s another two decades of service for the Vipers.
This means the fighter jets could still be in combat ready in 2050 — but will anyone want them?
The idea of effectively rebuilding the Air Force’s F-16 fleet isn’t new. Of course, the service ultimately wants to replace the aircraft — along with F-15C fighter jets and A-10 ground attackers — completely with stealthy F-35s.
But as of 2017, the Joint Strike Fighter program continues to be plagued by delays and complications. In the previous seven years, the project has had to contend with problems with the ejection seat, a number of possible fire hazards, the aircraft’s immensely complex computer brain, the radar and much more.
So, in the intervening years, Vipers have continued to fight over Afghanistan, Iraq and eventually Syria and fly routine patrols in Europe, Asia and North America. The strain of these operations hasn’t been kind to pilots or aircraft.
During the 2013 fiscal year, Air Force F-16s suffered seven class A accidents — incidents that cause at least $2 million in damage or get someone killed. This was the highest rate in six years.
Two pilots died. The service started seriously considering a SLEP.
Unfortunately, by the end of 2013, budget cuts had killed the plan, according to official reports. Instead, the Air Force spent the money on upgrades for its small fleet of F-22 stealth fighters.
Then in 2015, plane maker Lockheed finished up a two-year torture test to see what would break after a simulated 92 years of flying. This data no doubt went into the Air Force’s revived plans to overhaul its F-16s.
Based on the draft documents the service released in December 2016, the parts that need replacing include the wings, much of the aircraft’s exterior “skin,” the right- and left-hand support beams for its horizonal tail and various bulkheads. During 2016, Air Force evaluators reviewed and approved the kit’s components at Hill Air Force Base in Utah.
The service expects to buy 300 of the kits for single-seat F-16C models in active service, along with another 43 parts sets specifically for foreign allies’ two-seat F-16D trainers. If all goes according to plan, contractors will have installed the components on all of those aircraft between 2018 and 2026.
There isn’t an estimated final price tag for the project yet, but it would leave a significant number of planes still in need of refits. The Air Force has over 1,000 C and D versions in service.
In addition, whoever wins the contracts to build and fit the parts will be able to sell more of them through the Pentagon to American allies. Since the plane’s first flight in 1974, Lockheed has sold or licensed production of more than 4,500 F-16s of all types to more than two dozen countries.
The official logo for the Air Force’s F-16 Program Office proudly proclaims it the “Fighter of Choice.” Many of these foreign operators need to upgrade their aging aircraft — or buy something else.
However, despite the F-16’s popularity, the SLEP might not automatically have a future beyond the initial run of aircraft upgrades. While the plan could keep the Air Force and its partners flying the jets for decades, it’s not clear whether that fits in with anyone’s long-term plans.
For the Air Force, the SLEP is only an interim solution until the F-35 is finally ready to go in sufficient numbers. The service is already working on plans for whatever comes after the Joint Strike Fighter.
“What we want to do is stay ahead of the developmental curve,” then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said in June 2016. “We’re thinking about options 20 years down the road.”
While its clearly one option, it’s hard to imagine he was talking about a refurbished F-16.
For its part, Lockheed routinely warns that without additional sales of entirely new F-16s, it will have to shut down the production line. In 2010, the company went so far as to argue that if it couldn’t sell F-16s to Taiwan soon, it might be forced to offer F-35s to officials in Taipei in the future.
Washington ultimately approved a plan that let Lockheed upgrade the Taiwanese F-16s with new radars, electronic countermeasures gear and other systems. The finished aircraft, dubbed F-16V, were similar to new ones the company subsequently built for Iraq.
But in spite of these statements and sales, the company clearly wants to sell F-35s not F-16s. It has already lined up nearly a dozen customers for the advanced jets around the world.
This focus was clear in the sign-up sheets for an Air Force meeting about the SLEP, which the service posted online with the other contract documents. The lists had just one individual from Lockheed and four from competitor Boeing.
Boeing has a history of scooping up these deals. In 2007, the firm won the contract to rewing the Air Force’s A-10s. With the new span, those planes might be in service through 2040 — alongside the overhauled F-16s.
But regardless of who ultimately builds and installs the kits, the SLEP won’t include any new equipment that would help keep the Vipers competitive against other fighter jets. Depending on the customer, Lockheed could choose to offer F-16V-style upgrades or just see if they can afford the F-35.
And if it moves ahead with plans for even more advanced versions of its F-15 Eagle and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Boeing wouldn’t necessarily have any incident to offer those modifications, either. If Washington doesn’t want to sell Joint Strike Fighters to a particular country, the company would likely push those new planes rather than upgraded Vipers. In 2016, Boeing made headlines with sales of F/A-18s to Kuwait and F-15s to Qatar.
In the end, while F-16s could be airworthy three decades from now, it remains to be seen if any of them will still be flying.