Randall Howard is Director of Business Development for the integrated F-16/F-21 Fighter Group at Lockheed-Martin. He is the company’s primary interface and senior advisor for developing and maintaining key customer relationships, strategies, proposal development and transition plans to support and generate new business for the F-16 line, including the F-21, as it is called for India. ESD spoke with Howard about the current and future status of the F-16. The interview was conducted by Georg Mader.
ESD: Given the ARAMCO attack in September, it seems that the UAE and perhaps other countries are turning away from buying new fighter aircraft and investing more in surveillance and GBAD instead. This means that 3++ or 4-generation fighter aircraft – like LM’s F-16 – will get a lifetime extension like in the UAE, or a whole new second or even third life. Do you agree and what does that mean for you as LM F-16 Director? What is the current status of FIGHTING FALCON and what is its future outlook?
HOWARD: Or the VIPER, as it is lately called. Key point is that the F-16’s affordability helps to continue making it a very attractive and useful option for many countries. The F-16 currently remains the most popular aircraft in modern military service. Imagine, out of 4,588 produced, 3,620 came from Fort Worth – the rest was licence-built by Fokker and SABCA in the Netherlands and Belgium, KAI/Samsung in Korea and TAI in Turkey – and nearly 2,700 currently remain operational in around twenty-six countries. F-16s have shot down 83 or 84 enemy aircraft, while only suffering one or two losses in aerial combat. While for example the GRIPEN after 30 years has a perfect “Zero”. And of course, the F-16 has served the US and its allies as workhorses for airstrikes on targets in Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Afghanistan or Pakistan. In over 400,000 combat-sorties, since 1991. While the GRIPEN has never fired a shot in anger.
ESD: And because of this glowing past, you see a similar glowing future for a 45-year-old warplane?
HOWARD: Definitely. This means that the most modern fighter of the fourth generation of the 1980s will remain in our inventory for a long time to come and will play a leading role in military aviation worldwide – for decades to come. Neither of us will live to see the last flight of an F-16.
ESD: You might be right about that. Because now you are switching to the latest version at LM, which will also be manufactured at a new production site.
HOWARD: If one were to count it in the “lives”, one could say that at the end of November we ended the F-16`s “former life” with the delivery of the last newly built aircraft to the Iraqi Air Force, a Block-52. This was the latest of the current F-16C and two-seater -D models, all built in Ft Worth and in service since the mid-1980s. And yes, we have now opened a new production facility in Greenville, SC. At the same time, legacy platforms are being converted into F-16Vs, a VIPER upgrade. We are doing these upgrades for four countries, with Taiwan as our first customer and probably Greece, Korea and Morocco, and we are talking to several others. We have slightly more than 400 aircraft of those on contract, and I believe that another 400 or 500 more will be added in the next five to seven, eight years.
ESD: What will these customers get?
HOWARD: The improvements include a new avionics suite and Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 scalable agile beam AESA radar.
ESD: That’s the radar of the F-35, at least partly.
HOWARD: Yes, the system shares almost 95% software commonality and about 70% hardware commonality with the APG-81 radar on the F-35. Most of it is on the back-end. The APG-83 radar has greater detection and tracking ranges, and can simultaneously track more than 20 air-to-air targets. It offers high-resolution synthetic aperture radar mapping and can simultaneously interweave air-to-air and air-to-surface modes, while being able to work in dense radio frequency environments. ASEA can monitor a wide area laterally, horizontally, diagonally and vertically. The upgrade will also bring a new mission computer with higher speeds, more processing capability and a new data bus management system. We are able to roll fifth-generation technologies back into our fourth-generation aircraft, since we have the unique in-house ability to apply lessons learned from the F-35 and F-22 to legacy systems.
ESD: And this upgrade-package is now ready?
HOWARD: The F-16V prototype – a converted Taiwanese Block 20 aircraft – made its maiden flight in October 2015, joining a USAF Block 40 F-16D, which served as an AN/APG-83 radar testbed. We are now more towards the end of the flight-test phase of the programme.
ESD: What future the type has within the USAF?
HOWARD: The U.S. Air Force intends to continue flying its around 1,200 F-16s well into the 2040s, by extending the airframe’s service life from 8,000 to 12,000 hours. While counting to cost about US$20,000 per flight hour to operate, compared for example to about US$40,000 for a twin-engine F-15. The USAF is upgrading about 70 of its F-16s with VIPER capabilities, their intent is to eventually upgrade at least 370.
ESD: But given the upgraded UAE’s aircraft and the aircraft of future or renewed operators, the US will not have the most recent versions in its inventory.
HOWARD: That’s right. The most sophisticated F-16 in service today are not in the U.S. Air Force inventory, but rather the UAE’s Block 62 F-16Es and -Fs, called DESERT FALCONs. They were specifically developed for the UAE, with their conformal fuel tanks greatly extending the range at minimal aerodynamic cost. And they have the APG-80 AESA radars, representing the cutting edge of fighter-borne radar technology, due to their superior resolution.
ESD: And they are retaining it longer now, right? Because in 2017 there were rumours that the UAE would buy F-35s.
HOWARD: While that is not my business, as far as I know there have not been any briefings to them – on the F-35 – yet. On our first day here at Dubai 2019, we have been contracted again to renew continuous support to the UAE`s F-16-fleet in maintenance of equipment, including a new simulator.
ESD: And so now come the new-built Block 70/72s, depending on the engine selected either from GE or P&W. Does it also have the extended service life of the upgraded ones and a new cockpit-layout?
HOWARD: Yes, it also will have the increased 12,000-plus hours. And it shares the avionics infrastructure and systems with the VIPER, so many of our customers call them both VIPERs. And there are new computers and software as well as a high-definition cockpit display. It also adds a new detecting and responding electronic warfare suite, missile warning sensor and helmet mounted cueing system. It will also use a high degree of increased on-board automation to free up pilot focus and workload; a pilot is then freed up to focus more on other mission critical tasks. Instead of being a “display or sensor manager”, he is a tactician, much like in the F-35. His systems are making self-protection decisions for him much faster, at the speed of a computer. He works in a fully night vision compatible cockpit, with two 4-inch square side displays and a 6- by 8-inch high resolution centre pedestal display. Therefore, the aircraft has new mission and signal generating computers and a whole new databus management system, with one GB on-board ethernet since the new radar alone is collecting a lot more data than before.
ESD: I have heard something about an anti-ground-collision system to be installed?
HOWARD: You are well informed. But it’s already there; the system has already saved seven lives – and billions in aircraft costs. The computerised ground-collision avoidance-system is now part of the F-16 automation, a technology which uses computer algorithms to autonomously re-route the plane in the event that a pilot is incapacitated or disoriented. The computer system can take over the flight of the plane to avoid collisions with the ground, building or other structures.
ESD: And who will now get all those features?
HOWARD: Bahrain is the initial overseas customer for the new-build units; we have been awarded a contract for 16 aircraft. Approval was also given to upgrade Bahrain’s existing fleet of 20 Block 40 F-16C/D aircraft to the same standard. These programmes are off and running and we will begin to deliver these aircraft from late 2021 on. The State Department also has approved the sale of 25 new F-16s to Morocco – plus 23 VIPER upgrades, making them the fourth of the above-mentioned upgrade customers. We also have seen an increased interest across Central and Eastern Europe, because their former Soviet-era MiG-aircraft are running out of service-life. So there’s a great interest in replacing those aircraft with Western jets. And subsequently, Slovakia has signed an agreement for 14 new aircraft and the State Department has approved the sale of eight new-built F-16s to Bulgaria. Furthermore, we are in discussions with several Southeast Asia nations, which could lead to another 100 or so new aircraft in the very near term.
ESD: LM is offering the type in Colombia, Indonesia and again Poland, right?
HOWARD: As I said, several discussions are on-going, in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and South-East Asia. On Indonesia for example, their Airchief was with us just weeks ago; this is about maybe two squadrons, like 30 or 35 aircraft. And then there is the security environment the Philippines are facing, they currently fly these Korean A-50s which are – while supersonic and having a radar – in the lighter category.
ESD: Just a question in between: If a customer – let’s say my home country Austria – unexpectedly signed a contract today for the delivery of block 70 aircraft, when would the customer get his aircraft – in view of the fact that you already have the aforementioned obligations? Could you produce for two customers at the same time?
HOWARD: As far as the supply base is concerned, it would take about three years. We can build four aircraft and more per month and build for three or four customers in parallel. And as for Austria, put away those infant-series TYPHOONs and go for serious capabilities.
ESD: Thanks, I will tell them. But of course there is India, with the demand for 110 aircraft today being the largest potential combat jet order there is. They need 42 squadrons instead of today’s 29.
HOWARD: You are right; India naturally is of particular interest. They need about 250 new fighters. According to unique Indian requirements, for these 114 VIPERs – called F-21 in India due to Indian animosity to acquire the same aircraft as the arch rival Pakistan, whose F-16s in February 2019 downed an Indian MiG-21 over Kashmir –, we offer them a central single cockpit display like on the F-35 and refuelling capability with the probe-and-drogue system. This receptacle will be attached to the conformal fuel tanks. And a dorsal equipment tunnel for various sub-systems and equipment. And Lockheed Martin has there teamed with TATA Advanced Systems and has offered to move the whole structural-parts production line to India, if the type is selected.
ESD: You mean all future F-16s would then come from India, if you win this contract? Maybe also on reasons of lower Indian labour costs?
HOWARD: Oh yes, an Indian production line would then provide F-16s for any future international buyer that may emerge. And it is not just because of labour costs. It is also on quality, if one intends to offer such a move. We therefore have now even given the wings production to India, to TATA. Even before they might select our aircraft, signalled to them as the most highly sophisticated while affordable single-engine fighter ever.
ESD: So, all newly contracted customers would get Indian wings, like the new planes for Slovakia, Bulgaria or Morocco? This might put you in a favourable position.
HOWARD: Yes, that’s right. We have published a press release on this several months ago. It shows that we are highly committed to “Make in India”. And you are right, it will bring down the overall costs as well. But LM also has learned they deliver quality as TATA is now building every empennage for the C-130J as our sole provider of this segment according to our specifications, with the highest quality. They already have made over 100 of them, to every recent C-130 customer worldwide.
ESD: While “Make in India” is their mantra for the foreseeable future, this could be a decisive point. But beyond that, they need 5th generation capabilities as well.
HOWARD: Oh yes, they might need an F-35 to protect them from China. In their last attempt with the Russians – PAK FA or later Su-57 – they realised quite late that they were not well treated. We should proof to do better.
ESD: Well, then all the best for all these ambitions.
HOWARD: Thanks for your continuous interest in LM fighters over the years, it has been a pleasure.