The first F-16s arrived in Israel in July 1980. These were newly-built F-16A/B Block 10 Netz (Sparrowhawk) jets and they equipped Nos.117 ‘First Jet’ and 110 ‘Knights of the North’ Squadrons. In 1981 they took part in the raid against the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq. An F-16B Netz is seen in the main artwork.
In Israeli service the F-16C and F-16D (seen here) are known as the Barak (Lightning). This jet wears No.105 ‘Scorpion’ Squadron markings and carries a GBU-15 glide bomb under its right wing.
In the last 40 years the F-16 has established itself as the most popular Western fighter in its class, and today serves with 28 nations around the world. The latest production standards and upgrades ensure it will retain its capability well into the twenty-first century, as production continues beyond the 4500-aircraft mark.
The F-16 originated under the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) programme for the USAF, which had the aim of proving the concept of a fighter that would be smaller and cheaper than the F-15. Initially a General Dynamics project, the company flew a first YF-16 demonstrator in February 1974. After a competitive fly-off against the rival Northrop YF-17, the General Dynamics product was subject to further development, becoming the larger and more capable F-16A Fighting Falcon. This was ordered by the USAF, which required an initial 650, later increased to 1388, soon followed by the NATO air forces of Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. So began an export odyssey that continues to this day and which has seen over 4500 examples of the F-16 completed for 28 nations.
While successive variants have progressively added more weight, avionics and capabilities, all Fighting Falcons retain the salient features of the initial production model, including control-configured vehicle (CCV) technology and fly-by-wire flight controls, as well as a generous thrust-to-weight ratio using a single engine fed by a fixed ventral intake. The result combines good overall performance with exceptional agility, roll rate, climb and acceleration. The unswept wing features automatically variable camber, and the pilot benefits from a frameless canopy for superior vision, a reclining seat and a sidestick controller in place of the conventional joystick. The throttle, meanwhile, carries controls for the weapons, head-up display (HUD) and radar. In its original F-16 guise, the Fighting Falcon utilized the AN/APG-66 pulse-Doppler radar with look-down/shoot-down capability, but this has given way to successively more advanced models, including the latest active electronically scanned array (AESA) technology in the most advanced versions of the jet.
According to the manufacturer, the F-16 has been completed in 138 different configurations from prototype to the latest production model, the F-16V (V for ‘Viper’, by which name the aircraft is commonly known). As such, successive changes have taken into account improved cockpit technologies, avionics, sensors and weapons, while at the same time effort has been made to ensure the fighter is more reliable and easier to maintain and support.
Key changes that have been introduced to the aircraft include an increase in range and payload, infra-red sensors and laser targeting devices, and improvements in the field of survivability thanks to more advanced electronic warfare sensors and sophisticated decoys. In order to cope with the increased weight of such additions, the F-16 has received new powerplants to provide increased engine thrust, while extended range has been ensured through the addition of conformal fuel tanks. The cockpit of the latest versions retains the original hands-on throttle and sidestick switch controls, but combines these with large colour displays, night vision goggle (NVG)-compatible lighting, a colour moving map and an increased-area HUD. Other avionics improvements include advanced datalinks, satellite communications and helmet-mounted cueing systems.
The first sub-variant of the basic F-16A was the combat-capable two-seat F-16B, first flown in 1977 and with reduced fuel capacity. The F-16A and B were built in successive Blocks, numbered 1, 5, 10 and 15, of which the last introduced a major change in the form of an extended horizontal stabilizer. The F-16 ADF conversion had upgraded radar and AIM-7 Sparrow compatibility.
The first major advance came with the F-16C and two-seat F-16D, with an enlarged base leading up to the tailfin and provision for the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The initial Block 25 F-16C/D gave way to the Block 30 and 32 with the General Electric F110-GE-100 or Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220, respectively. Both options required an enlarged air intake. The Block 30/32 is also capable of deploying AGM-88 HARM missiles. The F-16C/D Block 40/42 retains the same engine options but features avionics changes for improved night/all-weather capability, including LANTIRN navigation and targeting pods, GPS, automatic terrain following and AN/APG-68(V) radar.
In 1991 production switched to the F-16C/D Block 50/52 that is differentiated by the AN/APG-68(V5) radar, NVG-compatible HUD, AN/ALE-47 countermeasures dispenser, AN/ALR-56M radar warning receiver and uprated F110 or F100 engines. Addition of the HARM Targeting System for the Wild Weasel defence suppression role produces the Block 50D/52D. The Block 50 was adopted as an upgrade standard for NATO F-16A/Bs, producing the F-16 MLU (Mid-Life Upgrade). This brings the original cockpit to the Block 50 standard, including wide-angle HUD and NVG compatibility. The MLU aircraft also received AMRAAM capability and have since added further advanced weapons options and avionics upgrades.
The latest and most advanced in-service Fighting Falcon version is the Block 60, designated F-16E/F Desert Falcon. Produced for the United Arab Emirates, the F-16E/F introduced an array of sophisticated avionics, based around the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 ‘agile beam’ AESA radar, AN/ASQ-32 Internal FLIR and Targeting System (IFTS) and Falcon Edge internal electronic countermeasures system. Conformal fuel tanks are fitted as standard above the inner part of the wing on each side of the fuselage. Precision-strike weapons include the AGM-84H SLAM-ER cruise missile, AGM-154C Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) and GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb (SDB). The Block 60 first flew in December 2003, and the first Desert Falcons were delivered to the UAE in May 2005, going into combat for the first time over Libya during Operation Unified Protector in 2011.