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The US Air Force’s F-16 nightmare: no stealth, no problem?

Resume: A cornerstone of the U.S. Air Force for fifty years, the F-16 Fighting Falcon remains a prominent figure in global air power, despite its age and non-stealth design. Known for its agility, speed and innovative features such as a frameless bubble turret and a fly-by-wire system, the F-16 has proven its worth in a variety of roles.

-Although it lacks the stealth capabilities of newer fifth-generation fighters such as the F-22 and F-35, the F-16 is still valuable for less intensive tasks such as homeland and base defense, enforcement of no-fly zones and supporting more advanced aircraft with standoff weapons.

This versatility ensures that the F-16 remains a critical asset in modern warfare, complementing the capabilities of more advanced aircraft against advanced adversaries.

F-16 Fighting Falcon: controlling the skies for more than fifty years

The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon has been a valuable part of the United States Air Force (USAF) inventory for half a century. But as the battlefield changes and air defense systems improve, can the non-stealth F-16 survive in a modern conflict against an advanced opponent like Russia or China?

Fifty years of service

The fourth generation F-16 is a small, affordable single-engine fighter with versatile capabilities. Versatile and successful, more than 4,600 F-16s have been built, although the USAF no longer buys the aging aircraft. The F-16 is distinguished by its frameless bubble canopy, which is known for providing the pilot with exceptional visibility. In the cockpit, the F-16 is known for its side-mounted control stick and an ejection seat that reclines 30 degrees (to reduce the effects of g-forces on the pilot).

The F-16 is also the first aircraft to ever use a relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire flight control system, which allows the pilot to take control of an inherently unstable airframe. The F-16 is highly maneuverable and has long been the favorite bird of the USAF Thunderbird.

Today, the F-16 is the most common fixed-wing aircraft in military service; There are currently 2,145 F-16s operational with air forces around the world. The reason the F-16 is so commonly encountered is because the jet has proven itself to be so capable.

The F-16 is much smaller and lighter than previous aircraft (and contemporaries). It is remarkably agile and will be the first aircraft built to fly 9-G maneuvers.

Yet the F-16 is not only agile, the jet is also fast, reaching a maximum speed of more than Mach 2. With a thrust-to-weight ratio of more than one, the F-16 is capable of rapid climbs and vertical acceleration. .

When designing the F-16, General Dynamics’ goal was to create a jet aircraft that would be relatively inexpensive to build and maintain. Accordingly, the airframe is constructed from 80 percent aerospace-grade aluminum, while the advanced flaps, stabilizers and vertical fins are constructed from a bonded aluminum honeycomb structure and graphite-epoxy lamination coatings.

The aircraft is simply built: the number of lubrication points, fuel line connections and replaceable modules has been drastically reduced compared to previous fighter jets. The F-16 was built with an expected service life of 8,000 hours.


The F-16 nightmare: no stealth is a problem?

Unfortunately, the F-16 was built before stealth aircraft were invented. And while modern American fighter aircraft typically incorporate stealth technology, the F-16 is a non-stealth airframe that is still in use today. How useful would the F-16 be without stealth in a modern conflict?

Against an advanced adversary, the United States’ fifth-generation fighter aircraft, i.e. the F-22 and the F-35, would take the lead in air superiority and ground attack missions. But the F-16 could still be used as a valuable addition: providing homeland and base defense, enforcing no-fly zones and deploying standoff weapons in support of frontline stealth fighters.

The F-16 leaned toward lower-priority, routine tasks and would free up more advanced fifth-generation platforms to fulfill more demanding roles, strengthening the U.S. war effort.

About the Author: Harrison Kass

Harrison Kass is a defense and national security writer with more than 1,000 articles on issues relating to global affairs. Harrison, a lawyer, pilot, guitarist and minor professional hockey player, joined the United States Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.