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F-16: The Best Warplane To Ever Fly?

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The extent of the upgrades, enhancements, and modifications to the F-16 are extraordinary, as they have introduced new, paradigm-changing performance parameters, weapons capability, electronic warfare (EW), and advanced sensing. 

Like the mythological Phoenix rising from its own ashes to once again claim its power and glory in the sky, the Air Force’s 1980s-era F-16 seems to have reinvented itself numerous times in recent decades. The extent of the upgrades, enhancements, and modifications to the F-16 are extraordinary, as they have introduced new, paradigm-changing performance parameters, weapons capability, electronic warfare (EW), and advanced sensing.

For example, the F-16 has in recent years received F-35 technology such as an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar capable of tracking as many as 20 targets at one time.

F-16 Earns its Wings

As far back as 2019, Air Force weapons developers said the F-16 had received massive structural upgrades to its upper wing skin and fittings, upper and lower bulkhead, and canopy sill longeron. These adjustments extended the service life of the F-16 by as many as 4,000 flight hours by increasing its ability to operate from 8,000 flight hours to as many as 12,000 flight hours.

U.S. Air Force modernization experts have described this Service Life Extension program as 12 structural modifications called a Time Compliance Technical Order. Part of this included upgrading F-16 radar systems from mechanically scanned radar (APG-68) to an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) (APG-83).

At this time several years ago, Lockheed F-16 developers said the F-16 was also getting new computers, software, targeting technology and cockpit displays to ensure it remained cutting-edge and capable against advanced 4th-generation threats. As part of this effort, Lockheed even engineered a new “v” variant of the F-16, which continues to generate allied interest around the world with added missile warning systems, EW, and helmet-mounted cueing technology.

The F-16 “V” model, in development for several years now, has greatly informed the emerging Indian F-16 jet fighter variant called the F-21. Based upon a series of Lockheed innovations, the F-21 incorporates a few technologies unique to India, such as Electronic Warfare weapons and something called Triple Missiles Launcher Adapters, which arm the aircraft with 40 percent more air-to-air weapons when compared with standard or previous F-16s.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon flies over the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility Oct. 14, 2020. The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a compact, multirole fighter aircraft that has proven itself in both air-to-air combat and air-to-surface attack. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)

Variants and Comparable Aircraft

The F-21’s new Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, developers explain, not only basically doubles the radar range but also draws upon recent innovations such as the Navy’s Infrared Search and Track (IRST) targeting technology. Engineered first on a Navy F/A-18, IRST is a passive, long-range sensor that can track multiple targets simultaneously in a “jamming” or electronic warfare threat environment and support precise air-to-air targeting.

A massively enhanced, upgraded, and upgunned F-16 variant such as the F-21 could introduce a much more favorable strategic circumstance for India as it seeks to deter and contain China, particularly along its border area. China has for quite some time taken specific measures to further militarize its Western plateau regions along its border with India, a kind of force posturing and strategic maneuver, which could be held at risk by a fleet of F-21s.

Forty-nine F-16 Vipers and MQ-9 Reapers assigned to the 49th Wing line up on the runway during an elephant walk at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, April 21, 2023. The 49th Wing is the Air Force’s largest F-16 and MQ-9 formal training unit, building combat aircrew pilots and sensor operators ready for any future conflicts. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Victor J. Caputo)

Also, the U.S. Air Force F-16 has integrated cutting-edge “collision avoidance” technology into the F-16, computer-enabled technology, which can take over and “fly” the aircraft to avoid collisions in the event that a pilot is incapacitated or injured.

Years ago, former Air Force acquisition military deputy Gen. Arnold Bunch told 19FortyFive that this collision avoidance has already saved lives. For example, if a pilot pulls too many “Gs” and becomes unconscious, collision avoidance will steer the aircraft away from other airplanes, terrain, or other objects.

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