The F-16 is currently the single most prevalent fighter type in the world, an accomplishment that is clear not only by its extensive use within the forces of the United States but also with many others around the world. In part 2 of our look at the type, Adam Duffield delves into the forces that operate it.
Originally developed with plans to enter service with 5 nations, over the last 40 years the F-16 has been exported to many more around the world and, today, is still in active service with 24 different countries and two new customers are currently awaiting delivery.
With over 50% of F-16s ever built having entered service with the US, it is still a vitally important aircraft in their inventory and between the various branches they operate many different variants and block modification levels. The single largest operator within the country is the Air National Guard whose main role is to provide air based protection of the United States for which the F-16 is perfectly suited. Operating F-16C and F-16D variants spanning multiple upgrade block levels, there are currently 16 ANG units flying them although many more have operated the F-16 in the past. The US Air Force operates the widest range of variants including the F-16A, F-16B, F-16C, F-16D and QF-16 models. Utilised for a wide range of roles that include Test and Evaluation Squadrons under the AFMC at Edwards AFB and foreign pilot training such as for the Taiwanese Air Force under the 21st Fighter Squadron at Luke AFB, Arizona, there are also a number of squadrons located outside the United States. Under the command of US Air Forces Europe are three Squadrons (480 FS at Spangdahlem AFB, Germany and 510 FS and 555 FS at Aviano AFB, Italy) whilst the Pacific Command maintains Squadrons in South Korea, Japan and Alaska. The Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) also operates F-16C/D variants across three squadrons. Perhaps the most unexpected operator is the US Navy who, operating the F-16N, use the aircraft within aggressor units for training purposes.
Along with the United States, four European nations were recipients of the initial batch of F-16A/B aircraft – Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands and Norway. All four of these countries continue to operate them today having upgraded their fleets to F-16AM/BM level. The Netherlands has the largest fleet of the four with 5 Squadrons split between the Leeuwarden and Volkel bases. The Belgian Air Force operates with three Squadrons, with one based at Kleine Brogel and two at Florennes, whilst the Danish operate from a single base at Skrydstrup. The Norwegian Air Force utilise Bodø and Ørland bases for their aircraft with the latter playing host to the renowned ‘Tiger Meet’ in both 2012 and 2013.
Another four European operators have also chosen the F-16 as part of their air forces with the largest being the Turkish Air Force. The first orders were received in 1983 for a total of 156 F-16C/D models under the Peace Onyx I program. Like the original four European operators who had their own production lines, the Turkish fleet were mostly built under license by TUSAS Aerospace Industries and delivery of these started in 1987 at Block 30 standard with later airframes delivered as Block 40. A further three Peace Onyx programs have been signed since then for additional airframes along with attrition replacements and the TuAF currently have over 225 of the type operating from 6 bases across the country with the latest aircraft delivered to Block 50 configuration.
The Hellenic air force followed shortly after their Turkish neighbours and ordered F-16C/D Block 30 models in late 1984 under the Peace Xenia agreement. Keeping in line with the expanding TuAF fleet, a further three Peace Xenia programs were implemented to further add to their capacity however, unlike the majority of operators, they run a mix of General Electric and Pratt & Whitney engines as the last two programs chose the Block 52 and 52+ versions and the latter included the distinctive conformal fuel tanks. The final two European operators are Portugal and Poland. The former received their first F-16A/B Block 15 aircraft in 1994 under the Peace Atlantis deal which were new builds and a follow on Peace Atlantis II deal saw Portugal increase their fleet with second hand Block 15 aircraft from the United States. Poland was the last of the European countries to receive aircraft after the Peace Sky agreement was signed in 2003. With delivery of F-16C/D Block 52 aircraft starting in 2006, they now operate three squadrons across two bases and have recently been seen in the UK both on exercise at RAF Leeming and transiting through RAF Mildenhall on route to the US.
Outside of Europe and the US, two of the largest fleets are to be found in the Middle East. Israel’s Air Force have a combined fleet of nearly 300 active aircraft spanning F-16A/B, F-16C/D and F-16I variants. Delivered under a series of programs named Peace Marble, the fleet are all heavily modified to fit Israel’s requirements. Of particular note is the F-16I ‘Sufa’, a variant only used by Israel and contains a number of visible design differences from all other models that cater for unknown equipment. The second of the countries is Egypt who, through no less than seven separate Peace Vector agreements, have built up a force of over 200 F-16A/B and F-16C/D aircraft with deliveries starting in 1982 and the very latest Block 52 aircraft being delivered in 2013 with aircraft of that order still being built.
Other Middle East nations have also selected the F-16 as part of their air forces however in much lower numbers. Bahrain has one of the smallest fleets of aircraft in the region with a total of 22 F-16C/D aircraft ordered to Block 40 standard. Not far behind in terms of fleet size, the Royal Air Force of Oman are also one of the most recent additions to the customer list. Under the Peace A’sama A’safiya I program the country ordered 12 F-16C/D Block 50 variants in 2002 however a second program recently followed in 2011 for another 12 F-16s of the same specification and the aircraft under this deal are still being delivered. The Jordanian Air Force operates a somewhat older force of F-16A/B models that has been built up slowly over time. Delivered under six separate Peace Falcon programs, the first two deliveries consisted of ex-US force examples at Block 15 level. Following this, recent additions to the fleet have come from Belgian and Dutch air forces and, under a seventh program signed last year, a further delivery of 15 Block 20 aircraft from The Netherlands is due in 2014. At the opposite end of the technology scale is the Air Force of the United Arab Emirates who are the sole operator of the most up to date F-16E/F Block 60 based at Al Dhafra Air Base.
Use of the F-16 platform is also prevalent in Asia with five countries in the region operating them. Perhaps the most difficult set of orders to be agreed relate to the Peace Gate deals with Pakistan. The first force in the region to order and receive its F-16A/B aircraft during 1983, there were no initial issues with the completion of the first two programs. However during the build of aircraft ordered under Peace Gate’s III and IV, a decision was taken in 1990 by the US Administration, under President Bush, that the airframes built under the agreements would be embargoed due to Pakistan’s active development of Nuclear Weapons. Whilst there was much debate about the eventual fate of these aircraft, a new deal completed in 2006, renamed Peace Drive, saw agreement for some of the original aircraft to be delivered along with an order for new F-16C/D Block 52 variants.
The Republic of China Air Force (Taiwan) has the largest inventory of aircraft in the region operating F-16A/B models ordered under a single Peace Fenghuang deal agreed in 1992. As part of this, a small number of the aircraft ordered are based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and are used for training and testing. A follow on order to purchase F-16C/D Block 52 aircraft was requested by Taiwan in 2006 however, with this not being agreed even now, there is no news on any potential deliveries. Also training at Luke AFB are pilots from the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Originally receiving F-16A/B models under the Peace Carvin I agreement, these were replaced during subsequent deals with F16C/D Block 52 models. Singapore has two Squadrons based at Tengah Air Base in the west and one at Changi Air Base in the east.
The surplus F-16A/B aircraft from Singapore were donated in 2004 to the Royal Thai Air Force. Already operating the model as a result of four Peace Naresuan programs that started in 1985, the donation formed part of a deal to allow Singapore access to the Udon Thani air base for training purposes. The smallest force in the region, and likely worldwide, is that of Indonesia. Originally ordering 12 F-16A/B aircraft in 1986 under Peace Bima-Sena, only 10 aircraft are still in service following two accidents. However, an order placed in 2011 for 24 upgraded ex-USAF F-16C/Ds is being progressed at present.
Currently two South American forces are using the F-16 – Chile and Venezuela – with the former having the larger fleet. Under the Peace Puma deal that was agreed in 2000, Chile ordered 10 F-16C/D Block 50 variants for its air force which are based at the Los Condores Air Base. In addition, and under two separate deals with the Dutch Air Force, Chile strengthened its force with surplus F-16A/B models under Peace Amstel with these being based out of Cerro Moreno air base. The Venezuelan Air Force operates a smaller number of F-16A/B Block 15 aircraft ordered in 1982 under the Peace Delta agreement with two Squadrons based out of El Libertador Air Base in central Venezuela.
There are two final countries that make up the current list of active operators. The Royal Moroccan Air Force are one of the most recent additions to the list of F-16 equipped forces with an order for F-16C/D Block 52’s placed in 2007 with the first aircraft being delivered in 2010. At the other end of the scale however is the Republic of Korea Air Force who first placed orders for the type in 1981. Under three separate deals named Peace Bridge, the air force has a sizeable number of F-16C/D Block 32 and Block 52 variants. As part of the second order, agreement was made for South Korea to produce the aircraft ‘in house’ making them the 5th such country to do so after the initial three (United States, Netherlands and Belgium ) plus Turkey and the resultant airframes are locally designated KF-16.
Whilst production of new F-16s has drastically reduced in recent years, there are still some forces ordering the platform both new from factory and as acquisitions from other countries. In 2010 the Iraqi Air Force selected the F-16C/D Block 52 in order to start rebuilding its strength following the years of military action in the country. With the first delivery due in late 2014 Iraq has already placed a follow up order which is due to be completed in 2018. Romania is also expecting delivery of its first batch of F-16 in 2016 following a deal to acquire a total of 12 F-16A/B Block 15 aircraft – 9 from Portugal and the remaining 3 from USAF – along with a number of upgrades and enhancements to the airframes.
Even though the production lines for the F-16 may be slowing down compared to the pace of the 80’s and 90’s, the future of the F-16 still looks good with current and future orders along with upgrade programmes expected to keep production lines busy until at least 2020. A number of the early adopters of the F-16 program such as the United States, Netherlands, Denmark and Turkey are already seeking a replacement next generation aircraft and have selected the F-35. With delays to that program, the F-16 fleets are still being updated with life extensions and capability upgrades that will potentially benefit all operators. And of course, when the F-35 finally enters service, the volume of F-16s that will be available on the second hand market will likely see further strengthening of current forces and potentially even new countries operating the jet. There is no doubt that many countries will be selecting and using the F-16 platform for many years to come.
Part three of the series looks at the F-16s role in operations around the world along with the various display teams that use the type to not only to entertain the crowds but demonstrate the ability of the machine.