Col. Tim Bailey, US Air Force Life Cycle Management Center’s (AFLCMC) F-16 program manager, said in a press conference at the Life Cycle Industry Days that the US Air Force (USAF) anticipates hundreds of F-16s in active service for decades to come, meaning into the 2040s, Air Force Magazine reports.
Much of the recent service-life extension program (SLEP) work on the F-16 has bought years of additional life for the type, and Brig. Gen. Dale White, program executive officer for fighters and advanced aircraft has gotten no instructions to start work on its successor, which USAF has dubbed the “MR-F” or “MR-X,” for a future multirole fighter.
White also said there’s no requirement passed to AFLCMC to evaluate the Boeing T-7 as a possible successor platform to the F-16.
The MR-F first showed up in planning documents in 2021 that indicated the Air Force was looking to an F-16 successor in the mid-2030s. Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. then said that the aircraft sought would be a “clean sheet design,” which he referred to as a “fourth-and-a half/fifth-gen minus” aircraft.
Last year Brown also said that the USAF extant seven-fleet mix of fighters will need to be reduced to four plus one. The objective mix will include the A-10 “for a while” (set to phase out in 2030); the Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) system; the F-35, “which will be the cornerstone” of the fleet; the F-15EX; and the F-16.
“The 4+1 is still the strategy,” White said, “and there has been talk about the MR-X. We do what the requirements folks tell us. It’s good to have options.”
He also said that it’s “a healthy thing” that the USAF has the F-35 and F-15EX in production for itself and that Lockheed Martin is still building F-16s for the international market. Technology created for the latest F-16s can be inserted into the Air Force’s existing F-16 aircraft, he said, noting that a major radar upgrade for the jet was “actually paid for by Taiwan.”
“While I don’t have any firm requirement” for an F-16 replacement, “I know the MR-F piece is going to continue to be looked at, because at some point we’ll have to have a replacement” for the F-16.
However, Bailey said the F-16 is structurally healthy and can continue to serve.
He explained that the service life extension program now largely complete, “for a few million dollars per jet, gives you 20 years of life.”
“The F-16 provides the capacity in our Air Force: lots of fighters to cover all kinds of combatant commander needs,” he said. However, “it has to be relevant. Not just the F-16 of today.”
White said F-16s are being fitted with active electronically-scanned array radars “as fast as we possibly can.” The radars expand the sensing range of the aircraft, the number of targets it can track, and the modes with which it can prosecute ground targets.
The jets will also get “a host of other upgrades: EW (electronic warfare) kind of things,” which, along with the radar, are the “big mods” being done on the fighter, White said.
Most of the Air Force’s F-16s will also eventually wear the “Have Glass” finish, which substitutes a new radar-absorbing coating for the jet’s traditional gray-on-gray paint scheme.
The F-16A, a single-seat model, first flew in December 1976. The first operational F-16A was delivered in January 1979 to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah.
The F-16B, a two-seat model, has tandem cockpits that are about the same size as the one in the A model.
All F-16s delivered since November 1981 have built-in structural and wiring provisions and systems architecture that permit expansion of the multirole flexibility to perform precision strike, night attack and beyond-visual-range interception missions. This improvement program led to the F-16C and F-16D aircraft, which are the single- and two-place counterparts to the F-16A/B.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
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