The most advanced F-16s in the world aren’t American. That distinction belongs to the UAE, whose F-16 E/F Block 60s are a half-generation ahead of the F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft that form the backbone of the US Air Force, and of many other fleets around the world. The Block 60 has been described as a lower-budget alternative to the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, and there’s a solid argument to be made that their performance figures and broad sensor array will even keep them ahead of pending F-16 modernizations in countries like Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore.
See details of F-16C/D: HERE
The UAE invested in the “Desert Falcon’s” development, and the contract reportedly includes royalty fees if other countries buy it. Investment doesn’t end when the fighters are delivered, either. Money is still needed for ongoing training, fielding, and equipment needs – and the UAE has decided that they need more planes, too. This DID article showcases the F-16 Block 60/61, and offers a window into its associated costs and life cycle, including dedicated equipment purchases for this fighter fleet.
The F-16E/F “Desert Falcon”
The F-16 has become what its designers intended it to be: a worthy successor to the legendary P-51 Mustang whose principles of visibility, agility, and pilot-friendliness informed the Falcon’s original design. The planes have been produced in several countries around the world, thanks to licensing agreements, and upgrades have kept F-16s popular. It’s no exaggeration to call the F-16 the defining fighter of its age, the plane that many people around the world think of when they think “fighter.” They remain the American defense industry’s greatest export success story of the last 40 years, but the aircraft’s ability to handle future adversaries like the thrust-vectoring MiG-29OVT/35 and advanced surface-air missile systems is now in question.
The F-16 has now undergone 6 major block changes since its inception in the late 1970s, incorporating 4 generations of core avionics, 5 engine versions divided between 2 basic models (P&W F100 and GE F110), 5 radar versions, 5 electronic warfare suites, and 2 generations of most other subsystems. Moore’s Law applies as well, albeit more slowly: the latest F-16’s core computer suite has over 2,000 times the memory, and over 260 times the throughput, of the original production F-16.
Block 60: Technical
Each new iteration of the fighter costs money to develop, integrate, and test. The UAE invested almost $3 billion into research and development for the F-16 E/F Block 60 Desert Falcon. First flight took place in December 2003, and flight testing by Lockheed Martin began in early 2004. UAE pilot training on the F-16E/F began at Tucson Air National Guard Base, AZ in September 2004, and the first group of pilots completed their training in April 2005. The first Desert Falcons arrived in the UAE in May 2005.
All of the initial 60 aircraft have been delivered, and all training now takes place in the UAE. Versions of this aircraft have been entered in a number of international export competitions as well, including Brazil’s F-X2 (eliminated) and India’s MMRCA (eliminated), but it hasn’t found any buyers yet. Production will restart soon anyway, thanks to the UAE’s impending add-on buy 30 F-16 E/F Block 61s with minor component upgrades.
Design & Powerplant
The aircraft’s conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) let them carry more fuel, with less drag than underwing drop tanks. All that fuel feeds GE’s new F110-GE-132 engine, which produces up to 32,500 pounds of thrust to offset the plane’s increased weight. The -132 is a derivative of the proven F110-GE-129, a 29,000-pound thrust class engine that powers the majority of F-16 C/D fighters worldwide. Even with a bigger engine and more weight from added sensors, CFTs, etc., Block 60 fighters offer a mission radius of 1,025 miles – a 40% range increase over F-16s without CFTs.
Conformal fuel tanks (CFTs) let them carry more fuel, with less drag than underwing drop tanksGE’s new F110-GE-132 engine, which produces up to 32,500 pounds of thrust
Conformal tanks aren’t exclusive to the Block 60. They’re options for many F-16 variants, and can be removed before missions, but that may not be a great idea for the UAE’s fleet. It’s a classic give/take scenario, in which more capability (q.v. electronics) means more weight, which requires a larger engine, which shortens range without more fuel. The conformal tanks more than make up that difference, creating a formidable strike fighter, but they exact their own aerodynamic cost in acceleration and handling. That tradeoff hurt attempts to export the fighter to India’s IAF, which prioritized maneuvering performance and left the Desert Falcon off of their shortlist.
The Desert Falcons’ most significant changes are electronic. Northrop Grumman’s AN/APG-80 AESA radar is the most significant advance, and made the UAE the first fighter force in the world to field this revolutionary new radar technology outside of the USA. Compared to mechanically-scanned arrays like the AN/APG-68v9s that equip advanced American and foreign F-16s, AESA radars like the APG-80 have more power, better range, less sidelobe “leakage,” near-100% combat availability, and more potential add-on capabilities via software improvements. Unlike the APG-68s, the APG-80 can perform simultaneous ground and air scan, track, and targeting, and it adds an “agile beam” that reduces the odds of detection by opposing aircraft when the radar is on.
This last feature is important. Seeing the enemy first remains every bit as significant as it was in Boelcke’s day, but the inverse square law for propagation means that turning on older radar design is like activating a flashlight in a large and dark building. It can be seen much farther away than it can illuminate. An agile-beam AESA radar largely negates that disadvantage, while illuminating enemies who may not have their own radars on.
The aircraft is also fitted with a Northrop Grumman AN/ASQ-32 IFTS (Internal FLIR and Targeting System) mounted as a ball turret above the nose) replacing the external pods used on earlier variants
The Desert Falcons also take a step beyond the standard ground surveillance and targeting pod systems fielded on other F-16s, by incorporating them into the aircraft itself. Northrop Grumman’s AN/ASQ-32 IFTS is derived from its work on the AN/AQS-28 LITENING AT, but internal carriage reduces drag and radar signature, and frees up a weapons pylon. The ASQ-32 can even be used to find aerial targets, allowing passive targeting, and offering a tracking option that radar stealth won’t evade.
A JHMCS helmet mounted display provides parity with the fighter’s most modern counterparts, and displays information from the aircraft’s radar and sensors wherever the pilot looks. Its real advantage is that it creates a much larger targeting zone, which can be fully exploited by the newest air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9X. Avionics improvements round out the enhancements via an advanced mission computer to enhance sensor and weapon integration, a trio of 5″x7″ color displays in the cockpit, etc.
AIM-9XAvionics improvements round out the enhancements via an advanced mission computer to enhance sensor and weapon integration, a trio of 5″x7″ color displays in the cockpitRear seat F16F
Various advanced electronic countermeasures systems make up the Falcon Edge Integrated Electronic Warfare System (IEWS), which provides both advance warning capabilities and automatic countermeasures release.
F-16s have an extremely wide range of integrated weapons, but Mideast politics has kept some American weapons from the UAE’s hands. Their Desert Falcons won’t carry the same stealthy AGM-158 JASSM long-range, stealthy cruise missiles found on American F-16s, for instance. Nor can they carry the similar “Black Shahine” MBDA Storm Shadow derivatives that equip the UAE’s Mirage 2000 fleet.
The Joint Air-to Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) is an autonomous, stealthy, long range conventional, air-to-ground, precision standoff missile which the UAE is not gettingGPS/IIR-guided AGM-84H SLAM-ER cruise missiles that can deliver accurate hits on ships and land targets up to 250 km away – UAE have received this weapon since 2013Stealthy AGM-154C JSOW glide bombsGBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs
On the other hand, the Desert Falcons’ array of integrated weapons will include medium range, GPS/IIR-guided AGM-84H SLAM-ER cruise missiles that can deliver accurate hits on ships and land targets up to 250 km away. At shorter ranges, stealthy AGM-154C JSOW glide bombs and GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs give them wide-ranging one-pass attack capabilities against hard targets. In the air, AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder short-range missiles give them over-the-shoulder kill capability, and a combat option that many of the UAE’s neighbors haven’t fielded yet.
AIM-9X Block II Sidewinder short-range missiles give them over-the-shoulder kill capability
Block 60: Political Issues
In the course of development, 2 key issues came up with respect to the F-16 Block 60. One was the familiar issue of source code control for key avionics and electronic warfare systems. The other was weapons carriage.
As a rule, the software source codes that program the electronic-warfare, radar, and data buses on US fighters are too sensitive for export. Instead, the USA sent the UAE “object codes” (similar to APIs), which allow them to add to the F-16’s threat library on their own.
The other issue concerned the Black Shahine derivative of MBDA’s Storm Shadow stealth cruise missile. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) defines 300 km as the current limit for cruise missiles, and the terms of the sale allow the United States to regulate which weapons the F-16s can carry. Since the Black Shahine was deemed to have a range of over 300 km, the US State Department refused to let Lockheed Martin change the data bus to permit the F-16E/Fs to carry the missile.
Black Shahine derivative of MBDA’s Storm Shadow stealth cruise missile Since the Black Shahine was deemed to have a range of over 300 km, the US State Department refused to let Lockheed Martin change the data bus to permit the F-16E/Fs to carry the missile
The Mirage 2000-9 upgrades that the UAE developed with France addressed this issue, giving the UAE a platform capable of handling their new acquisition. As of 2013, UAE F-16E/F fighters have finally received the SLAM-ER precision attack missile, giving them the shorter-range but very accurate strike capabilities.
|YF-16||F-16A||F-16C Block 30||F-16E Block 60|
|Length||48 ft 5 in (14.8 m)||49 ft 6 in (15.1 m)||49 ft 5 in (15.1 m)||49 ft 4 in (15.0 m)|
|Wingspan||31 ft 0 in (9.45 m)||31 ft 0 in (9.45 m)||31 ft 0 in (9.45 m)||31 ft 0 in (9.45 m)|
|Height||16 ft 3 in (4.95 m)||16 ft 8 in (5.08 m)||16 ft 8 in (5.08 m)||16 ft 8 in (5.08 m)|
|Empty weight||13,600 lb (6,170 kg)||16,300 lb (7,390 kg)||18,900 lb (8,570 kg)||22,000 lb (9,980 kg)|
|Maximum take-off weight||37,500 lb (17,000 kg)||42,300 lb (19,200 kg)||46,000 lb (20,900 kg)|
|Combat radius||295 nmi (546 km)|
|Engine||PW F100-PW-200||PW F100-PW-200||GE F110-GE-100||GE F110-GE-132|
|Thrust||23,800 lbf (106 kN)||23,800 lbf (106 kN)||28,600 lbf (127 kN)||32,500 lbf (145 kN)|