The Pentagon does not want the most recent iteration of the F-16

On November 22 the first F-16 Block 70/72 was unveiled by its manufacturer Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defence industrial firm, which has for decades held a duopoly on the American fighter market alongside Boeing which produces the F-15 and F-18.

F-16 Block 70/72

The aircraft is a notable improvement over prior F-16 variants, and benefits from integration of the APG-83 active electronically scanned array radar, new cockpit displays, and compatibility with a range of new weapons such as the AIM-120D air to air missile. Key to making the program viable was a large $8.2 order for 66 aircraft placed for the Republic of China (ROC) Air Force, which although not representing the air arm of a UN member state was assent to by the Donald Trump administration at a time of high tensions with the Chinese mainland (People’s Republic of China).

The two rival Chinese governments remain technically at war, with rapid advances fuelling ROC interest in higher end American fighters before the F-16 was settled on. As the second oldest fighter still in production anywhere in the world, other than the heavier F-15, the F-16 has gained little attention from the Pentagon which ceased acquisitions 17 years ago in 2005, meaning new production batches will be funded exclusively by export orders. As the cheapest Western fighter in production, the aircraft has been looked to by many Third World and Eastern European countries as well as by the ROC due to its inability for political reasons to acquire higher end aircraft.

F-16s Lead F-35 in Formation (USAF/Scott Wolf)

The latest F-16s were notably the first ever built in South Carolina, with a small plant set up by Lockheed Martin in Greenville as the firm focuses larger facilities, such as that at Fort Worth Texas, on the F-35 fifth generation fighter program. Unlike the F-22 program, which effectively failed to provide a viable fifth generation successor to the F-15, the less troubled F-35 program has seriously limited demand for F-16s worldwide despite significant efforts by Washington to promote the aircraft abroad often with considerable political pressure. The small line in Greenville is expected to produce primarily for the ROC, but also to meet small orders from Bahrain, Slovakia and Bulgaria with with small Moroccan and Jordanian orders also expected.

The only major client other than the ROC which is expected to potentially materialise is Turkey, due to the country’s inability to purchase the F-35 for political reasons, although the state of relations between Ankara and Washington has resulted in resistance on the American side to provision of even these older jets. Continued production of the F-16 has allowed the United States to remain in the low end fighter market despite a lack of interest in the aircraft for its own fleet, mirroring how Russia has continued to invest in upgrades for its own counterpart to the F-16 the MiG-29 despite placing negligible orders for the class since 1991.

F-16 Block 70/72 in Production in Greenville

F-16s will remain customisable depending on client demand, with the Block 70 and 72 variants using different engines – the General Electric F110 and Pratt & Whitney F100 respectively. The future of the F-16, and whether foreign orders will be sufficient to continue production past the early 2030s, remains uncertain, although by that time it would likely be the oldest production fighter in the world. The low rate of production will allow production to be dragged out over a significantly longer period.

Of four fighter classes currently in production in the U.S., only the F-35 is expected to continue production far into the 2030s with the futures of the F-15, F-16 and F-18 all uncertain as the viability of modernised Cold War era designs remains in question. The U.S. is second only to China in the number of fighter classes in production, but ahead of Russia which produces the MiG-29/35, Su-30/34/35 and Su-57 for a total of three. All other producers have just a single class in production.

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