Cold War Era

Remembering the F-16N Viper, the best adversary fighter jet ever flown by the US Navy

US Navy F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet crews were fighting a truly different aircraft, flown by superb aerial tacticians.

The F-16N Viper, a version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon operated by the US Air Force, was procured by the US Navy for use as an adversary aircraft in air combat training, simulating the capabilities of fourth-generation Soviet fighters.

According to, in the mid-eighties, the US Navy was eagerly seeking a replacement for its adversary training aircraft. Both the F-5 and A-4 were in service at the time. The Navy found that these aircraft were not longer to their satisfaction in fulfilling this task. These aircraft lacked the latest avionics developments and they were becoming obsolete very soon, with extensive maintenance being required. Also the lack of a high maneuverable and fast jet aircraft to perform this adversary training was felt very badly. A decision was taken to develop a customised version of the F-16 to fill this gap.

The F- 16N as it was designated was based on the standard F-16C variant flown extensively by the USAF. The F-16N was outfitted with the Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pod on the starboard wingtip. The Navy had been looking for a replacement to its aging fleet of adversary aircraft, specifically the A-4 Skyhawk and F-5 Tiger.

As explained by Chuck Lloyd and Rick Llinares in their book Adversary: America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons. After examining the various aircraft available, the Navy selected the F-16N which was a basic F-16C (Block 30 with the General Electric F110-GE-100 engine) that retained the APG-66 radar the F-16A/B models. To completely simulate adversaries, the ALR-69 Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) was incorporated into the F-16N as well as the ALE-40 chaff/flare dispenser and the ACMI pod.

The Navy ordered a total of twenty two single seat F-16N’s, and four two seat TF-16N’s which were deployed in the late 1980’s. The first operators of the aircraft were the Bandits of VF-126 which were based at ‘Fightertown USA’ also known as NAS Miramar. The Blackbirds of VF-45 based at NAS Key West were the next recipients of the F-16 adversary fighter. The Challengers of VF-43 and the Fighter Weapons School were the last Navy aggressor units to receive the jet.

From the Navy perspective, short of actually having a Fulcrum or Flanker, the F-16N was as close to a real dissimilar fighter as they could get. Therein lies perhaps it’s greatest advantage. Navy Tomcat and Hornet crews were now fighting a truly different aircraft, flown by superb aerial tacticians. Against the F-14, the smaller, more maneuverable F-16N was a very challenging foe as the following video shows.

Unfortunately, the F-16N’s began to experience the wear and tear that comes with excessive g’s over the course of many aerial engagements. The Navy was faced with a costly repair effort to keep the Falcon’s flying, and decided to retire the aircraft. Ironically, the F-5E’s that the F-16N was supposed to retire ultimately outlasted its supposed successor. Regardless, the F-16N will stand as the finest adversary tactics fighter ever flown by the US Navy.

In 2002, the Navy began to receive 14 F-16A and B models from the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) that were originally intended for Pakistan before being embargoed.

Moreover, the service started to receive F-16 Vipers retired by the US Air Force (USAF) as part of the plan to increase its adversary air capabilities. The US Navy is set to receive a total of 20 single-seat Block 32 F-16Cs and 6 two-seat Block 25 F-16Ds. According to The EurAsian Times, the F-16C/Ds are replacing the F-5N Tiger 2s belonging to Fleet Composite Squadron (VFC) 13 “Fighting Saints,” at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada which is the Navy’s Reserve Force Squadron that specializes in replicating adversary threats or ‘red air’ in support of the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC).

These aircraft are operated by the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) / (TOPGUN) for adversary training and like their F-16N predecessors are painted in exotic schemes.

Adversary: : America’s Aggressor Fighter Squadrons is published by Schiffer Publishing and is available to order here.

Photo credit: PH2 Bruce R. Trombecky and Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Joseph R. Vincent / U.S. Navy

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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