F-16 Fighting Falcon-The Fighter that Almost Wasn't Built
By Willie Bodenstein
The USA's war in Vietnam revealed a lot about modern warfare in the sky. Studies of combat over Vietnam were producing worrying results. It showed that better training for pilots, especially in air to air combat, was a priority and that the introduction of an air superiority fighter was a must.
In the early sixties Colonel John Boyd, a Korean veteran and fighter pilot instructor and Thomas Christie, a mathematician, developed the Energy-manoeuvrability theory to model a fighter aircraft's performance in combat. The result of their research called for a small, lightweight aircraft that could manoeuvre with the minimum possible energy loss whilst also incorporating an increased thrust-to-weight ratio. In 1969 Boyd, and a group of like-minded innovators, was granted funding from the Department of Defence to study design concepts based on the theory on behalf of General Dynamics and Northrop.
Initially the USAF saw Boyd's backing by the Department of Defence as a threat to its F-15 program that was by then well advanced. However, the USAF soon realised that that its budget would not allow it to purchase enough F-15 aircraft to satisfy all of its missions and in May 1971 the Air Force Prototype Study Group was established, with Boyd a key member. Boyd's group submitted six proposals two of which the USAF agreed to fund, one of the two being the Lightweight Fighter (LWF).
On 6 January 1972 the USAF issued a Request for Proposals that called for a 20,000-pound (9,100 kg) class air-to-air single engine multi role day fighter with a good turn rate, acceleration and range, and optimized for combat at speeds of Mach 0.6-1.6 and altitudes of 30,000-40,000 feet (9,100-12,000 m). Since there still was considerable resistance to the "two fighter concept" the USAF made it clear that it had no firm plans to procure the winner.
To overcome resistance in the Air Force hierarchy, Boyd's Group called the "Fighter Mafia" and other LWF proponents embarked on an extensive lobbying campaign advocating the idea of complementary fighters in a high-cost/low-cost force mix that would allow the USAF to be able to afford sufficient fighters for its overall fighter force structure requirements.
Their lobbying paid dividends and five companies responded with General Dynamics and Northrop being selected to develop prototypes. General Dynamics's YF-16 had its first flight on 2 February 1974 and Northrop's YF-17 on 9 June of the same year. Both prototypes impressed but the fate of the LWF program still hung in the balance.
In Europe North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway were shopping for replacements of their current fleets and expressed interest in the LWF program. An agreement was reached that the NATO members will support the program on condition that the USAF ordered the LWF. The US Congress in the meantime diverted funds allocated for the Navy's Air Combat Fighter (NACF) program to the LWF program.
In April 1974 the last stumbling block in the development of the LWF was rolled out of the way when then U.S. Secretary of Defence James R. Schlesinger announced that the LWF would not be in competition with the F-15. Testing of the two prototypes was accelerated and on 13 January 1975 it was announced that General Dynamics YF-16 was the winner.
The U.S. Air Force initially ordered 15 "Full-Scale Development" (FSD) aircraft. The first F-16A left General Dynamics's Texas factory on 20 October 1976 and first flew on 8 December. Delivery was accepted by the USAF on 6 January 1979 and the F-16 entered USAF service as the "Fighting Falcon" on 21 July 1980. As agreed the four NATO members placed their orders. Belgium ordered 116, Demark 58, the Netherlands 102 and Norway 72.
Designed to be relatively inexpensive to build and simpler to maintain than earlier-generation fighters the F-16 was the first production fighter aircraft intentionally designed to be slightly aerodynamically unstable to improve manoeuvrability. The cropped-delta wing single turbofan engine Fighting Falcon that can reach a maximum speed of over Mach 2 was also the first fighter aircraft purpose-built to pull 9-g manoeuvres. It has a thrust-to-weight ratio greater than one, providing power to climb and accelerate vertically and was the first to use a fly-by-wire flight control system, to achieve enhanced manoeuvre performance.
Armed with an internal Vulcan 20 mm (0.787 in) M61A1 cannon for close range aerial combat and strafing the F-16 has nine hardpoints, six under the wings, two on wingtips, and one under the fuselage. Armaments will depend on mission and can include the AIM-120 air-to-air missile, a wide variety of air-to-ground missiles, rockets or bombs, electronic countermeasures (ECM), navigation, targeting or weapons pods as well as external disposable fuel tanks.
The F-16's first air-to-air combat success was achieved by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) over the Bekaa Valley when on 28 April 1981 a Fighting Falcon shot down a Syrian Mi-8 helicopter. On 7 June 1981 eight IAF Fighting Falcons escorted by F-15s during an air to ground raid severely damaged an Iraqi nuclear reactor. During the 1982 Lebanon War Israeli F-16s were credited with 44 air-to-air kills.
F-16s of the USAF saw extensive combat service during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the Balkans, and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom and again in Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom. In 2011, Air Force F-16s took part in the intervention in Libya.
Pakistani F-16s, during the Soviet-Afghan war, shot down four Su-22s, one An-26, one SU-25, and two Mig-23s that intruded into its airspace. Except for one SU-22 destroyed by canon fire, all the kills were the result of AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. One Pakistani F-16 was lost when shot down by a Mig-23.
Most F-16 losses occurred during the 1990s Greek-Turkey conflict. Turkey lost three F-16s; one shot down by a Mirage F-1 and two by Mirage 2000s. One Greek Mirage F-1 was downed by a Turkish F-16.
The F-16 has been continuously upgraded with a variety of structural enhancements, software and hardware systems as well as for weapons compatibility throughout its production life that started in 1976. More than 4,500 Fighting Flacons, of which 650 were lost to accidents, have been built and the type is used by the air forces of twenty three nations.
Although the F-16 was initially set to be replaced by the F-35 in 2015 it will remain in service, because of delays in the F-35 program, for the foreseeable future. In Foreign Service, especially the later block models, will probably remain in service until well into the 2020s
The fighter that almost wasn't built is now a 30 year old veteran and has proofed itself as one of the most enduring and successful designs of the past fifty years.