Defense Media Network

F-16V Is Latest ‘Viper’ Variant for Fighter Market

Lockheed Martin chose the Singapore Airshow in February this year to unveil plans for a new version of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The planemaker will offer the F-16V model as a new-production fighter and is also proposing F-16V features as an upgrade package for existing planes.

The F-16 is familiar around the world, with more than 4,500 delivered, and some may ask, why a new version of a fighter that completed its maiden flight on Jan. 21, 1974 – fully 37 years ago?

“The V configuration that we’re putting forth is the architecture that would support AESA [active electronically scanned array radar] on a block 50/52 type airplane,” said Bill McHenry, director of F-16 business development for Lockheed Martin in an April 2012 telephone interview.


The YF-16 prototype takes flight in 1974. After 37 years of service, Lockheed Martin is looking to extend the F-16 program with the proposed F-16V. Lockheed Martin photo

The block 50/52 is the latest version operated by U.S. forces, while the newer block 60 flies with the United Arab Emirates.

The F-16 is familiar around the world, with more than 4,500 delivered, and some may ask, why a new version of a fighter that completed its maiden flight on Jan. 21, 1974 – fully 37 years ago?


Time to Try

Two factors make this the time for a new F-16:

  • Unless new contracts are signed, the windowless, mile-long fighter factory in Fort Worth, Texas, will produce its last F-16 in 2015 (for Iraq). The Fighting Falcon will have been in continuous production for 40 years, yet many believe the basic design still has growth potential. New F-16V sales would be a boost to Lockheed and to the U.S. industrial base.
  • The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) continues to be behind schedule, over budget, and suffering from technical issues. A huge program often characterized as “too big to fail,” JSF is increasingly incurring so much displeasure on the part of Capitol Hill lawmakers that failure may, after all, become an option. Moreover, JSF is the only defense program so large that its cancellation might fit with the nation’s larger budget-cutting needs.


Inevitable Idea

The idea of a new version of the F-16 “has come and gone over the past decade,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at the Teal Group in a telephone interview. “The F-35 is no one’s idea of a mass market fighter given its current price point. Even in the elite market of a maximum of a dozen countries, you’re seeing a lot of pushback against the F-35 because of price. The company [Lockheed Martin] is good at hedging its bets against F-35 and marketing major upgrades.” The F-16V will be attractive, Aboulafia said, because “it’s less than half the price” of a JSF.


A U.S. Air Force F-16. While the proposed F-16V is a new-build aircraft, the package of modifications is also seen as a viable option for upgrading existing aircraft of the Air Force fleet. Lockheed Martin photo

The F-16V gets AESA radar, an upgraded mission computer and architecture, and an improved “glass” (digital) cockpit. Lockheed Martin says that all of those are features that have been identified by the U.S. Air Force and overseas buyers as needing improvement. The AESA radar promises significant capability improvements and Lockheed Martin says it has developed a solution to affordably retrofit the new radar to existing F-16s. The aircraft manufacturer has not identified a radar type for the F-16V, but two are likely candidates – Northrop Grumman‘s Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) and the Raytheon Advanced Combat Radar (RACR).

The F-16V configuration does not change the aircraft’s external appearance.

The “V” suffix in F-16V – a company term, not a U.S. Air Force designation – is suggested by “Viper,” the unofficial name given to the F-16 by pilots and maintainers.

The “V” suffix in F-16V – a company term, not a U.S. Air Force designation – is suggested by “Viper,” the unofficial name given to the F-16 by pilots and maintainers.

Many air power advocates have been arguing for years that the United States should consider “new build” F-16s or F/A-18E/F Super Hornets as a lower-cost alternative to JSF. Not all, however, see the F-16V as the solution. “This is two and half tons heavier at empty weight than the F-16A model [of 1975],” said Pierre Sprey, the former Pentagon analyst who helped create the F-16 by arguing for a lightweight fighter. Sprey would prefer a stripped, lightweight, single-mission air-to-air version of the F-16 powered by the 32,000-pound thrust afterburning General Electric F110-GE-132 turbofan that is used on the current F-16E/F block 60 for the United Arab Emirates. Sprey is a longtime critic of multi-role warplanes and of JSF.


Critic’s Comments


One of the United Arab Emirates Block 60 “Desert Falcon” F-16s, also referred to as the F-16E/F, the F being the two-seat version shown here. The F-16V would incorporate some of the Block 60’s upgrades, such as an AESA radar. Lockheed Marrtin photo

The F-16V “is a ‘five minutes to midnight’ desperation move which recognizes that the F-35 program is falling apart,” said Sprey in an April 11 telephone interview. Although the United States is still on record as wanting 2,443 JSFs for three service branches, “my prediction is that the U.S. buy will never be more than 500 airplanes,” Sprey said.

With the F-16V, the planemaker is “coming to their senses,” Sprey said. “They’re saying, ‘we’ve got to compete with Boeing, which is marketing the Super Hornet aggressively overseas, and we’ve to compete with Rafale and Typhoon.’

“But to do that, we don’t need extra weight and glitzy electronics,” Sprey said. “If you could get back to F-16A weights and throw in the -132 engine, you’d have a smokin’ airplane.”

The U.S. Air Force is retiring some of its older F-16s, but has long been pondering an upgrade program for 300 airframes.

Some analysts say a modern warplane should be robust and multi-role and point out that there seems to be almost an unlimited market for an improved F-16.

Lockheed is not proposing the -132 engine (which is unique to the block 60) for the F-16V, McHenry said. “The avionics, the radar and the modular mission computer are the focus,” McHenry said. “The aerodynamics and performance are pretty settled. There’s no customer requirement for more thrust or more aerodynamic performance out of the platform.” That means F-16V customers would have a choice of the 29,000-pound Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 or General Electric F110-GE-129 used on U.S. block 50/52s.

Twenty-six nations use F-16s. In recent years the F-16 has won new orders in Morocco, Egypt, Oman and Iraq. The U.S. Air Force is retiring some of its older F-16s, but has long been pondering an upgrade program for 300 airframes. The air staff and the Air National Guard have consistently opposed acquisition of “new build” F-15 Eagles, F-16s or F/A-18E/Fs for U.S. forces, insisting that only the capabilities offered by the F-35 will work for the long-term future.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27936">

    I hope the F-16V has an probe in the conformal wing tank for Aerial Refuelling. That will be a game changer for overseas customers who do not and will not get Boom refuelling. Many potential customers have asked for it and LM has tested and certified it,so will more than likely offer it to the market. It will make a difference to the customer base.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-27942">

    Add the -132 Engine to the 50/52 Block of Aircraft,and the Upgrades;and The USAF will .have “the perfect” multi-role strike fighter

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27949">

    More proof, as if needed, of the continuing demise of the US Air Force and, with it, the US military. With the F-22 program gutted and procurement shortfalls soon to be legendary (and costly to our freedom as a Nation),

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-27955">

    Tough position for a probe if you have to fly it into the drogue, though, unless it’s long enough to extend forward of the cockpit, in which case it will probably have to be fixed. If not, and it’s to one side or the other of the pilot, it’s going to be more difficult to tank than with a probe, whether retractable or fixed, mounted in the nose of the aircraft. Ask Royal Navy Sea Vixen pilots how hard it was for them to tank because their probe extended from the port wing outboard of the intake, and was about level with their shoulders. I suppose you could mount a straight probe like an H-53 helo does, and have it telescope out beyond the cockpit.

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-27993">

    Chuck,yes it does extend forward to right eye position. LM have the photos of the test done in UAE. The pilot got hooked up every time with no problems. It was a must for customers like,the
    Indian Air Force. I am surprised that this probe addition is not widely known as it was a great success.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-28012">
    George E. Bryant

    What has been unsaid in all of this chatter is that the F-16 is a much better and more capable aircraft as a result of the “Great Engine War” of the early 1980’s. Competition does work and both Pratt and GE should be congratulated for the improvements that they drove into their F-16 engine offerings to keep them up-to-date and cost effective.

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-chuck-oldham even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-28031">

    Very true. I understand the cost concerns of having two concurrent engine programs for the F-35, for example, but felt safer when there were two engines being developed.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-108325">

    What should be done is to take F-16A, equip it with revolver cannon, IRST and ability to acquire targets by using their own radar signals, put in a good jammer, and you’ve got an excellent aircraft.