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A Glance at the Global Used F-16 Market

Today, much focus goes into the development and spread of new lightweight multirole fighter aircraft –e.g., the JF-17 Thunder, the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas, and, eventually, the Turkish Aerospace Industries Hürjet.

Why?

Because these fighters present cost-sensitive countries with new, modern air warfare capabilities at price points that are markedly lower than the top-of-the-line products available on the defence export market, such as the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, or even new-built F-16 Block-70/72.

Not only that, but some of the current lightweight fighter options – most notably the JF-17 – are basically free of various supply-side restrictions. In fact, the JF-17 in particular is largely isolated from Western and, especially, American restrictions (at least from a technical standpoint).

Thus, the combination of cost-flexibility and/or supplier-flexibility makes these lightweight fighters strong options for many countries, especially in the developing world.

If options were limited to new-built aircraft for cost-sensitive and/or geo-politically challenged countries, then the lightweight fighter designs offer a viable pathway to modernization.

However, in this backdrop, used F-16s could deliver a unique proposition.

Why Used F-16s?

While it depends on the remaining life of the specific airframe, a used F-16 could offer a relatively capable and upgradable platform. Countries trust the capability aspect – e.g., range, payload, and other attributes – of the airframe. However, the question is: how much vertical room is left in a used F-16 in terms of the electronics suite, especially its radar and munitions compatibility options?

Well, it turns out, that vertical room is relatively ample, at least for the cost one can pick up these surplus or second-hand F-16s (which can range from anywhere from $10 million USD per airframe to around $25 million USD depending on the variant, airframe life, and other considerations).

For example, Top Aces, a privately-run air training company, acquired ex-Israeli Air Force F-16As and, in turn, upgraded them with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, Scorpion helmet-mounted cueing systems (HMCS), a tactical datalink (TDL) system, and electronic countermeasure (ECM) pod.

This Top Aces ‘upgrade’ is also called the “Advanced Aggressor Fighter” (AAF). Top Aces designed the AAF configuration to mirror the capabilities of modern fighters, especially from “near-peer” adversaries, such as China (which might emerge as a key exporter of advanced fighter aircraft should Russia recede).

Likewise, Lockheed Martin itself offers its own upgrade package for older F-16C/Ds – the F-16V upgrade configuration. This upgrade comprises of the AN/APG-83 AESA radar, the second generation Joint-Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS II), a new cockpit/human-machine interface (HMI) set up, and a number of other new or upgraded inputs. However, the most significant addition to the F-16V is the AN/APG-83.

Finally, there is also a third-party F-16 upgrade project in the works in Turkey. Known as the ÖZGÜR, this configuration – while only available to Block-30/32 aircraft – centers on Turkey’s homegrown AESA radar, HMI, electronic warfare (EW) and ECM, and other inputs.

Thus, depending on the specific airframe type and other contexts, a potential used F-16 end-user can get a contemporary platform. However, one might argue the same for the F-16s own peers, such as the MiG-29 or the Mirage 2000. But in contrast to the latter types (especially the Mirage 2000-series), the F-16 has a vast existing user-base and longstanding (and continuing) production run.

In other words, the runway for an air force to pick up these fighters and continue operating them into the future is long. In fact, those with F-16C/Ds – especially the Block-50/52 – can potentially carry out a service life extension program (or SLEP) of up to 4,000 to 6,000 hours on top of the stated airframe life of around 8,000 hours. This basically adds 15-20+ years of service life to these aircraft.

However, the fact that Top Aces (and other air training companies, such as Draken International) are both acquiring and upgrading F-16A/Bs suggests that the legacy Falcon variants also have plenty life. There are reports that Norway’s F-16A/Bs have around 2,500 flight hours left – i.e., 10-12 years of service life.

That said, an upgrade centered on an AESA radar is not a low-cost proposition. So, if the likes of Top Aces or Draken International are investing in these upgrades on older F-16A/Bs, there is a possibility that these legacy airframes have more life than what the manufacturer’s recommendations (8,000 hours) suggest.

The Main Customers

Until this point, the most notable buyers of these used F-16s have either been new NATO powers, or the private sector-based air training/aggressor companies. In both scenarios, the end-user is more restrained from a fiscal standpoint compared to a major air force.

It is also unclear if the expected annual hours per aircraft would be as high compared to a major air force, especially if the latter is operationally on alert or deployed for extended periods of time. So, in this sense, the more limited hours in a used F-16A/B might be feasible enough for these smaller air arms and would justify a major upgrade comprising of an AESA radar, JHMCS II or Scorpion HMCS, and so on.

So, on paper, the used F-16 route does seem strong. However, there is a major caveat that would basically cut many potential customers out of the loop.

If not for supply-side restrictions, there is no doubt that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), for example, would have sought used F-16A/B Block-15s and Block-25/32s. The fact that the PAF did not undertake a massive pursuit of used F-16s (like it had with used Mirage III/5s) clearly indicates that the gates of these fighters is not as open as some of the alternatives, such as the JF-17.

These restrictions would likely extend further into areas like weapons compatibility (the majority of these upgraded configurations will require U.S-origin munitions) and subsystem option. So, the used F-16 route is not categorically “open,” but for specific types of potential customers, it could be a solid option.

The optimal target customer of the used F-16 would be a country (or company) with positive security and foreign relations ties with the United States. While a more limited pool, it is still a sizable potential base – e.g., new NATO powers, various countries in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

However, this demarcation would likely lead to used F-16s eating more into the market-share of Western-oriented lightweight fighters, such as the KAI FA-50 and HAL Tejas, than an Eastern option like the JF-17.

Those countries that want to remain in the Western sphere and, more importantly, build closer ties with the U.S. could end up preferring used F-16s instead of new-built options. The former could also help with building closer interoperability with the U.S., a key consideration for some small powers.

 

 

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