The F-16 first flew right around my fifth birthday, which is more years ago than I care to admit. But it’s still getting upgrades, culminating now with the F-16V:
Current versions of the F-16 can launch beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, deliver laser- and GPS-guided bombs, and are equipped with conformal fuel tanks to extend their combat range. For this new F-16V, the main improvement is the APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). SABR uses hardware and software from the radars that equip the F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, giving the F-16V improved threat detection capability. SABR can also automatically identify targets and engage them with radar-guided missiles at longer ranges.
Another big improvement is the SNIPER targeting pod. Designed to provide precise day and night air-to-ground targeting capability, SNIPER is also useful in air-to-air combat, detecting enemy aircraft by their infrared signatures. That gives the F-16V a fighting chance at short range against planes like China’s J-20 “Soaring Dragon” fighter.
The F-16V grew out of a requirement to upgrade Taiwan’s aging F-16 force. Under pressure to keep up with a growing and increasingly modern hostile Chinese Air Force, Taiwan plans to upgrade 147 F-16A fighters with SABR, SNIPER, and new weapons systems to keep them current.
Anybody know what the V stands for? Country-specific export versions typically get country-specific lettering. “F-15SA” is the Saudi Arabian version of the F-15E Strike Eagle. Israel gets the F-16I, and so on.
But V? You got me.
Ask anyone who’s ever flown the Viper* — wait, is that what the V is for? — will tell you it’s one slick-handling fighter. And General Dynamics built it with what at the time was the world’s best single-engine flying air conditioner, because they knew future upgrades would be heavy on heat-generating electronics. The Falcon — excuse me, the Viper — was designed with room to grow.
The V adds fully-modern radar and targeting, which combined with out superior training ought to make it a match for anything the Russians or Chinese will put in the air for 20 years or more. The F-16V could well provide the numbers which the F-22 and F-35 will certainly lack.
Which is amusing, because the F-16 was designed way back when to be the “low” part of the Air Force’s “high-low mix.” The F-15 was the high end fighter, bigger, more expensive, and built in smaller numbers. The F-16 was to be more numerous and built in enough numbers to be virtually disposable. And yet I can’t think of a single instance where an F-16 has been lost in air combat.
It’s was a damn good jet then, and still is.
With the new V upgrade, at the ripe old age of 41 the F-16 could still provide the low end of a half-new high-low mix.
The V upgrades can be retrofitted into existing airframes, but our airframes aren’t getting any younger — I say warm up the production lines all the way to “hot.”
*The Air Force calls them Fighting Falcons, but the actual pilots call them Vipers. The V is a nice nod to the pilots, if that is indeed what it stands for.