- The decision will stretch the F-16's lifespan by more than 20 years
- The Pentagon has been leaning heavily on a smaller and aging air fleet
While the Air Force is regularly upgrading its aircraft and extending flight hour limits, stretching the F-16's lifespan by more than 20 years reflects efforts by the Air Force and other US military branches to resolve readiness issues produced by a shrinking fleet -- and will help close the gap until the delayed fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is fully delivered.
The US military has found itself leaning heavily on a smaller and aging air fleet -- a trend that has leaders across all four armed service branches concerned about combat performance and pilot safety. Recent pilot shortages, budget cuts and delays to new platforms, like the F-35, have prompted Air Force brass to call the current flying force the "smallest, oldest and least ready" in history.
"We are bringing on F-35s currently, but not fast enough to solve the capacity problem we have, so we need to keep as many of the planes that we have flying in the air for the foreseeable future," Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek said.
Lockheed Martin, the F-16's primary manufacturer, said Wednesday that the Air Force's approval of extended flight hours validates efforts to upgrade 300 F-16C and D model jets as part of a joint initiative to help keep US planes in the skies until the F-35 is finished.
"This accomplishment is the result of more than seven years of test, development, design, analysis and partnership between the US Air Force and Lockheed Martin," Susan Ouzts, vice president of Lockheed Martin's F-16 program, said in a press release.
The F-16 first flew in 1979 and is a combat-tested workhorse, according to the Air Force, supporting US forces in conflicts from the Persian Gulf to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It is also used by 28 of the US's international partners.
The Air Force currently has 1,200 F-16s in its inventory, and top military officials have recently floated the idea
of using the versatile aircraft to replace the most successful dog-fighting jet in history, the F-15.
The cost to build each F-16 was estimated at $18.8 million
Coupled with modernization programs, like the development of the F-16V fighter, the structural modifications made as part of the F-16 life extension "demonstrate that the Fighting Falcon remains a highly capable and affordable fourth-generation option for the US Air Force and international F-16 customers," according to Lockheed's Ouzts.