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F-16: biography of a fighter jet

Updated: Oct 14, 2022

India recently objected to the US handing $450 million to Pakistan for the 'maintenence' for Pakistan's F-16 fighter jet fleet. So we decided to write a short succinct biography of a fighter jet that always makes news. Here it is.

A series of F-16 fighter jets in formation in the sky.

The F-16 Fighter Falcon aircraft has been making headlines in the news recently over the latest developments regarding a decision taken by the administration of US President Joe Biden. The United States has sanctioned $450 million to the F-16 Fighter Falcon sustainment and maintenance programme to Pakistan. It has explained that this money is not for new fighter jets to Pakistan but for the maintenance and recovery of the already existing fleet in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) - this is a claim India takes with a pinch of salt, though, as its foreign minister recently quipped by saying everyone knows where these jets are pointed (meaning they are pointed not at terrorists but at India).

The State Department says the funds would improve upon Pakistan’s capability to carry out and sustain counter-terrorism operations. This move by the Biden Administration comes as a reversal of the Trump administration’s decision to halt such an aid to Pakistan’s air power. This decision at present would certainly mean a revival of the US- Pakistan strategic partnership and also signify the formal recognition of Pakistan as a counter-terrorism ally of the United States.

In this context, it is also important to understand the trajectory of the development of F-16 fighter jets and their role in the relationship between these two states.

US- Pakistan Relations and the Fighting Falcon

Over the years, the F-16 Fighter Jets have occupied an important role in the strategic relationship between Pakistan and the United States. It has not always been a smooth relationship and it can be said that the F-16 Fighting Falcon denotes the US- Pakistan historical relationship. It was in 1981 that Pakistan signed a Letter of Agreement with the United States for the purchase of 40 F-16 Aircrafts which included 28 F-16A and 12 F-16B ones. As per the deal Pakistan would receive the Fighting Falcons in two batches (Peace Gate I and Peace Gate II).

PAF Inventory of F-16 Fighter Jets[1]

As can be inferred from the table above, there have been inconsistencies in the dealings of F-16 aircrafts between Pakistan and the United States. The deals were halted after 1987 by the US when it imposed an arms embargo over the sale of F-16 to Pakistan. This was related to the disagreements between the two states over the suspected nuclear programme of Pakistan at that point. The nuclear programmes of India and Pakistan were a very significant cause of concern for the United States due to the rising tensions in South Asia. While the US suspected Pakistan of engaging in nuclear weapons development as a response to similar developments from India, it halted the sale of the Fighter Falcons even after the fighting jets were prepared for transaction. Since then, there has been an on and off arrangement over the sale and purchase of these jets between Pakistan and the United States.

Now, as has been noted before, these transactions have been largely reflective of the relationship shared by the two countries. Which is why it is very important to analyse the recent US aid package to Pakistan for the F-16 fighter jets. Many analysts view it in the context of a response to the arms deals between India and Russia, especially considering the current scenario of the war in Ukraine. Also looking into the tense geopolitical scenario between India and Pakistan, this assistance package may prove to further complicate the role of the United States in the Southern Asian conflict. While the US tries to maintain the role of a mediator and a balancing power between India and Pakistan, the arms trade to Pakistan is a direct indication of the tilt towards Pakistan. India was quick to express its concerns over this decision of the US State Department however, it would be interesting to note how the upgradation of the F-16 Jets in Pakistan would change the security dynamics within South Asia and the security partnership with the United States.

In order to understand why the F-16s today have such a central role to play in the unfolding relations between India-Pakistan and the United States, it is imperative to look at why these jets are so crucial and what has been the history of the usage of F-16 Fighting Falcons over time.

F-16: The Multirole Military Equipment

The first model of F-16 (F-16A) was assembled and delivered to the United States in 1979. It is reported that the creation of the first F-16 has been the result of an agreement made between the United States and four NATO countries - Belgium, Denmark, Netherlands and Norway. The manufacturing of the equipment for the first F-16s was conducted in all the five countries involved and these were later assembled together to make the first model of the F-16. It has been noted that this initial agreement between the US and the European Countries was to increase the resource supplies for manufacturing aid and the maintenance of the fighter jets. The second model of F-16 (F-16B) is a two seat model, in order to make room for the second seat in the cockpit, there has been a fuselage fuel tank and avionic growth space within this model. The latest units in the US Air Force Reserve have converted to the F-16C and F-16D which includes the latest display technologies and multirole flexibility within the aircraft.

Over the years more than 4,500 of these aircrafts have been built and sanctioned by the United States. Lockheed Martin, the primary manufacturer of the Fighter Falcon, is responsible for the development of these for about 26 different countries. These Fighter jets became popular because of their easy manoeuvrability as compared to the heavyweight fighter jets of that time. The F-16 is considerably lighter hence easier to navigate along with the higher tolerance to the gravitational pull for the pilot.

The 49.2 ft long aircraft has a fuel capacity of about 3,200 kg. The G limit of the aircraft stands at 9. The 'G' here refers to the gravitational pull and the metric 9 is the most that the human body can endure. The F16 Falcon is powered by a single General Electric F110 afterburning turbofan engine. The speed of the aircraft is about 2,120 kph.

Apart from these specifications, what makes this aircraft extremely useful in combat situations is its ability for carrying not just air-to-air missiles like AMRAAM, IRIS, Python 4 and Python 5 but air-to-ground missiles such as Maverick and HARM as well. There are four rocket pods and a nose section armed with a 20 mm single 6 barrel rotary M61A1 cannon. The aircraft also has the ability to carry a range of different bombs for attack, these include munitions like Gator mines, sensor fuzed weapons, general purpose bombs as well as small diameter bombs. The most significant aspect of the Fighter Falcon is that it can also carry the B61 and B83 nuclear bombs. This makes the F-16 Fighter Falcon one of the most important military devices developed.

Another important structural distinction that sets the Fighter Falcon F16 apart is that it stands as the first fighter jet that was equipped with the Fly-by-wire Flight Control System.

Anatomy of the Falcon: Fly-by-Wire

The Fly-by-Wire is a separate kind of Flight Control System that was a new phenomenon at the time of the development of the Fighter Falcons in the 1970s. This system basically entails that apart from just being controlled by the pilot, the aircraft would also be in the control of the Flight Control Computers (FCC) on the surface. These computers can make adjustments throughout the flight to enhance the performance of the aircraft and reduce the complete pressure from the pilot. The pilot can make adjustments based on the aerodynamic conditions which can be further supplemented and controlled by the flight control systems on the ground.

This was a major breakthrough development in military technology while the F-16 Fighter Falcon was developed for the first time and hence this aircraft still remains as one of the most easily manoeuvrable ones in combat roles. The fly by wire technology is electrical in nature and hence physically reduces the weight of the aircraft.

Now these specifications make it clear that F16 occupies a major position in terms of strategic and military affairs. This is the reason why the upgradation of the Pakistan Air Force F-16 Fleet, enabled by the US package, might be something to look out for in the near future. It would be further interesting to note the present situation of the Fighting Falcon in the major military powers of the world.

The use of F16

The US Aircraft F-16 displayed its full potential during Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War in the 1990s. This war is considered to be the largest F16 missions in the history of the aircraft’s usage. As recounted by one of the pilots- Air Force Major Emmettt Tullia, his F16 Fighter Falcon made history by dodging six air-to-surface missiles fired by Iraqi forces in a row. This could be possible only due to the easy navigation ability of the Fighter Falcon.

The aircraft was also deployed during the Operation Allied Force and has a variety of missions to carry forward. These included not just defence capabilities but also counter offensives and forward air controller missions.

Not only this, Pakistan has also admitted to using F-16s during its air combat against India in February 2019. Pakistan has around 32 remaining F-16 Falcons out of the 40 purchased at the beginning, and additional funds for this programme adds to the friction between the bitter South Asian rivals.

In the US, the F-16 is part of the well-known 'Thunderbirds' programme of the US Air Force. The Thunderbirds are the official acrobatic patrol team of the US Air Force and showcase aerobatics during air shows. Their classic act has six planes flying in close formations. These planes can accomplish some of the most sophisticated acrobatics in the world.

The F-16 At Present

In 2018, The Lockheed Martin Corporation, the chief manufacturer of the F16 Fighter Falcon announced its partnership with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) to produce the F16 Block 70 in India as a part of the Make in India Campaign. However, the deal is yet to materialise. Apart from this, at present, the United States manages the production of the F16 Fighter Falcons with the Lockheed Martin Corporation for the production and delivery of these fighter jets. Among the major countries using the F16 Fighter jet technologies include - Belgium, Denmark, Egypt, Greece, Indonesia, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, Portugal, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand as well as Turkey.

The sale and production of these fighter jets with the states is also consistent with the foreign policy and strategic alignment of these states with that of the United States. Therefore, these fighter jets can be used as the catalyst to gaining support for the United States foreign policy agenda over time as has been the case historically wherein the US has used the sale of these fighter jets to enhance the security of the states in the US block during the Cold War era.

In this context, it is important to analyse the US aid to Pakistan and what implications it might have for the strategic situation and the regional balance in South Asia.

The Concerns of India

When the decision to provide a monetary package of $450 million to Pakistan was made public, it immediately raised concerns on the Indian side. Even though the US Defence and Security Cooperation Agency (DGCA) has assured that this is not the sale of new aircrafts and hence would not alter the regional balance of power or threaten Indian security, there are still concerns about what it would mean for the US-Pakistan relationship. It has to be viewed in the context of the recent Chinese J-10C aircrafts also provided to Pakistan to increase its air defence capability.

That the US was ready to provide this cash support to Pakistan's F-16 programme despite the role played by the Pakistani military in the debacle and humiliating exit of the US from Afghanistan is a matter of concern for India. Pakistan, a country already on the brink of a humanitarian crisis due to the recent devastating floods, is perhaps in urgent need for humanitarian, rather than military, aid.

Renewed budgets for the upkeep of the Fighter Falcon F-16 fleet of Pakistan adds to the arms race of South Asia in an already volatile global security environment. What renewed energy in the security cooperation between Pakistan and the US means for America's role in the strategic terrain of the subcontinent remains to be seen.


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