Two decades after signing the last production contract for Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets US Air Force (USAF) officials are talking about ordering new Vipers.
As reported by Aviation Week, another USAF acquisition shake-up will be delivered in the fiscal 2023 budget request after a review of the tactical aircraft portfolio currently underway. F-16s, Boeing F-15EXs, a new attritable aircraft and a next-generation fighter will compete for a pool of production funding once monopolized by Lockheed’s F-35A.
The reasons for the shift in resources has evolved in public statements over time: the justification given by USAF officials behind the 2019 order for the first eight of up to 144 new F-15EXs was an urgent need. However, after a recent USAF inspection determined that the aging fleet of F-15Cs is in need of new wings to remain airworthy, the service found out that the existing training pipeline and infrastructure made F-15EXs a more expedient option than the F-35A.
The document, which was first reported by Aviation Week in December 2020, called for capping F-35 orders at about 1,050 instead of the program of record of 1,763.
The USAF is frustrated with the F-35A’s sustainment costs: Lockheed Martin has committed to reducing the average hourly cost to operate the F-35A to $25,000 by 2025, a roughly 25% reduction compared to 2018 levels. But as his resignation approached, Roper was not satisfied with the pace of the reduction, as the Air Force seeks to add new F-35s to the fleet at an annual rate of 48-60 jets a year.
“I think it’s a long way from being an affordable fighter that we can buy in bulk,” Will Roper, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition (who resigned his political appointment on Jan. 20) pointed out on Jan. 14. “That’s why other tactical aviation options are appealing to have in the mix so that the Air Force has options.”
Moreover the review could establish a permanent combat role for nonstealthy fighter jets for decades to come.
According to Roper, “The F-15EX is worth thinking about. It is not going to penetrate, but it can carry a lot of weapons, including hypersonic, which makes its role potentially different [than the F-35] on a contested battlefield.”
Actually thanks to its centerline weapon station with a 7,500-lb. load capacity, the F-15EX not only represents a convenient option for an urgent F-15C replacement, but also may fill a gap in the USAF’s force structure for a tactical aircraft that can carry a rocket-boosted hypersonic glide vehicle.
While continuing to operate the F-22 and the A-10, the review could lead the USAF to buy four different fighters—the F-35A, F-15EX, F-16 Block 70/72 and a next-generation fighter. The service also would be splitting orders between two Lockheed designs.
Danya Trent, Lockheed Martin vice president for the F-16 program said that “We are proud to partner with the U.S. Air Force across our portfolio, including the F-16 and other fighter platforms.”
On Apr. 26, 2019 Lockheed Martin launched its new F-16 production line in Greenville, South Carolina. F-16 tooling and equipment previously in Fort Worth, Texas, has been installed in Greenville, where the company manufacturs F-16 Block 70 aircraft.
More than 400 new jobs support the F-16 production line in Greenville. F-16 production also supports hundreds of US-based Lockheed Martin engineering, procurement, sustainment and customer support jobs and thousands of US supplier jobs. A significant portion of F-16 production occurs in the supply chain, which currently includes more than 400 US suppliers in 41 states.
To date, approximately 3,000 operational F-16s are in service in 25 countries.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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