Lockheed’s F-16V testbed flew for the first time yesterday. This face-lift of the F-16 is almost entirely internal, but it gives the most successful 4th generation fighter a quantum leap in capabilities. But don’t expect the F-16V’s game-changing features to show up on USAF F-16s anytime soon, and that is a major problem.

The F-16V configuration takes to the air for the first time over Fort Worth, Texas:

The F-16V will be available in both upgrade form for older F-16s and in new production aircraft. This new configuration features a slew of upgrades, most notably is Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) Scalable Agile Beam Radar, also known as SABR. This new radar allows simultaneous air-to-ground and air-to-air modes and offers a huge leap in fidelity, range, target identification, jamming resistence and detectability over the F-16C/D’s APG-68 series of mechanically scanned array radars.

An updated cockpit layout with full color displays and a large center pedestal display, similar to what was offered to India in the guise of the F-16IN, is also included in the F-16Vp package. Additionally, a new modular mission computer, digital electronic warfare system, ground collision avoidance system, high capacity Ethernet data bus and an advanced Link 16 datalink with satellite connectivity round out the F-16V’s primary features.

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The F-16V is a common sense upgrade for F-16s that need to stay relevant for decades to come and its “open architecture” allows for further upgrades down the line. The USAF still has close to a thousand F-16s in service today, hundreds of which will continue flying through the next decade at least. That is if the USAF is actually able to purchase the throngs of F-35s that they wish to. As many of us have been stating for years, the USAF’s plan to acquire around 1750 F-35As almost certainly won’t happen. Budgetary constraints when it comes to acquiring the $110 million fighters en masse and the cost of operating the high-end stealthy jet will make such an inventory goal nearly impossible. This is something key Congressional members are finally coming to terms with. As such, the USAF will probably have to keep its F-16s in inventory long after it wants to.

The problem is that today, as in now, the F-16 is showing its age. Not when it comes to its speed or maneuverability so much as its sensors, situational awareness enhancing pilot-aircraft interfaces, electronic warfare capabilities, and maybe most important, structurally. In fact, the F-16D fleet was recently grounded for cracks in its longerons, and airframe fatigue among the entire F-16 fleet is increasingly becoming an issue.

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As of now, no F-35As are operational, and even though the type is slated to be deemed operational by the USAF in the next two years, it won’t be until years later, if everything goes as planned, that the F-35A will be truly fully operational. Even then there won’t be nearly enough new F-35As to replace the F-16, even if full-throttle production were initiated. It likely wouldn’t be well into the following decade that the F-35A inventory could be built up enough to finally release the F-16 from duty, that is if the USAF can afford such a fleet at all.

In 2012 the Air Force was going to begin to deal with this problem by instituting a seemingly rational plan. It would give around 340 F-16s both a major avionics and sensor suite upgrade, know as Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite, otherwise known as CAPES. This upgrade would have given these jets many, if not all the features found today on the F-16V.

At the same time these jets would have also gone through a structural upgrade known as the Service Life Extension Program, or SLEP. This program would have rebuilt key structural components of these F-16s, allowing them to serve for another 4,000 hours beyond their 8,000 hour service life. By bundling these programs together, much of the work could be done at once, saving money and down time. The first kits were planned to be installed on USAF block 40 and 50 F-16s in 2018.

The plan was a logical first step that would have kept America’s “bread and butter” fighter relevant for the foreseeable future while also hedging against more F-35 delays and operational issues. It would also allow the F-16 to take on lower-risk missions, saving the F-35’s precious flight hours for when they are really needed.

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Without a doubt CAPES would have packed one hell of a combat punch into the already owned and fairly economical F-16. This would have happened all at a minimal cost, while extending the F-16s relevancy and reliability at least 15 years.

Sadly, this plan was abruptly cancelled when it was chosen to put the money into “other priorities,” mainly the struggling F-35 program. The cancellation was a controversial one, as it showed that the USAF was more than willing to suffer key capability gaps in order to prop-up the F-35 program, essentially raiding the funding needed to keep the air force they already have viable in order to have a better shot at getting that big F-35 production number down the line. This was billed at the time by the Secretary of The Air Force Deborah Lee James as one of the many “tough financial choices” that need to be made under budgetary constraints.

Lockheed knows full well that many F-16 users either are not allowed to purchase or cannot afford to purchase, yet alone operate the F-35, especially in large numbers. As a result, they have marketed the F-16V, which closely matched the USAF’s CAPES/SLEP program, as more or less an minimal cost “complimentary program” to the F-35 that will allow the F-16 to compete with foreign 4.75 generation fighters and to work in conjunction with allied 5th generation fighters for years to come. Sadly, the USAF does not believe in complimentary programs to the F-35. It is an all or nothing effort aimed at getting production numbers up in hopes of cutting unit costs and injecting stability into the shaky program.

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As a result of this misguided path, it appears that the USAF is now aiming more at just keeping their F-16s airworthy than enhancing their combat capability. A request for information was released late last Spring by the Air Force to replace 136 F-16s wings structures. The first aircraft would undergo this minimal structural upgrade in 2018.

With seemingly every egg in the F-35’s basket, the tactical relevancy of the backbone of the USAF’s fighter force for the foreseeable future is just another sacrifice that has been made at the Joint Strike Fighter’s alter.

Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com


Photo Credits: Top shot F-16V rendering via Lockheed Martin, shot of F-16V first flight via Lockheed Martin, all other shots via USAF.

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