The Buzz

Why Russia and China Still Fear the F-16 Fighting Falcon

The F-16 Fighting Falcon bears an unusual distinctions: it is one of the only top jet fighters in the world to also be cost efficient. Fast and extremely agile, the light fighter does have some shortcomings in range and payload compared to larger twin-engine fighters like the F-15 Eagle, but that was easy to forgive due to costing less than half as much—around $18 million in 1999 ($27 million in 2017 dollars). This favorable bang-for-buck ratio has not been lost on air forces across the world—the F-16 currently remains the most popular aircraft in modern military service: out of 4,500 produced, nearly 2,700 currently remain in service in around twenty-six countries. Needless to say, the cutting-edge fourth-generation fighter of the 1980s will remain with us for a good while longer.

The F-16 was born out of the conundrum experienced by the Air Force in the Vietnam War. Fast and heavy F-4 Phantom fighters had underperformed against the North Vietnamese Air Force, due to their immature long-range missile technology and lack of aptitude for tight maneuvering in dogfights. This led a faction known as the Fighter Mafia to argue that Air Force had its design priorities all wrong, and that what was really needed was a relatively cheap, lightweight airframe that maximized energy for short-range dogfights, rather than another heavy twin-engine fighter like the F-15 Eagle that was then under development, which would doubtlessly be over-reliant on defective guided missiles. (In fact, the Eagle went on to prove it was in fact possible to create a very maneuverable twin-engine jet fighter, if you didn’t mind the cost—and air-to-air missiles would improve dramatically as well.)

Support for a light fighter eventually consolidated in the Pentagon, due to simple economics: the Air Force liked the F-15, but realized it was too expensive to equip all of its fighter squadrons, so it came to seek a “high-low” force mix. Eventually two prototypes faced off in a competitive trial in 1974: the Northrop YF-17 and the General Dynamics YF-16. The latter was unanimously found to be more responsive, while the former evolved into the Hornet fighters now serving in the Marines and U.S. Navy. The first production F-16As went on to enter service in 1980, joined by the two-seat F-16B variant.

The single-engine F-16 leveraged new design technologies to maximize kinematic performance. A powerful Pratt & Whitney F100 engine with the intake slung under the fuselage could generate an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio due to the overall lightness of the Falcon, propelling the F-16 to twice the speed of sound at high altitude. Pronounced strakes bulged out like the hood of a cobra from the fuselage to support the cropped delta wings, enabling very high roll rates. A bulging bubble canopy afforded an excellent field of view for the pilot, who was lounged in a seat angled thirty degrees back so as to mitigate the G-forces from violent maneuvers. And the F-16 could pull off very violent maneuvers indeed, becoming the first jet fighter able to pull nine Gs in a turn—tighter than any other U.S. fighter until the advent of the F-22 Raptor. This explains the type’s service in the Air Force’s Thunderbirds aerobatics team.

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In fact, to maximize its maneuverability, the F-16 was intentionally designed to be aerodynamically unstable—a deficit which its Flight Control System automatically compensated for. This worked thanks to the F-16’s then-revolutionary fly-by-wire control scheme, which basically meant that the pilot’s controls were interpreted via an electronic interface instead of via hydraulic or cable-connected manual controls. Not only were fly-by-wire controls more reliable, but they made it possible for the flight computer to correct the pilot’s maneuvers as necessary to avoid exceeding the Falcon’s tolerances. Another feature was an integrated throttle in the joystick, known as Hands-On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS), enabling much smoother operation by the pilot. Fly-by-wire and HOTAS have since become standard features in modern combat aircraft.

Unlike the early model F-14 and F-15s, the Falcon was also designed as a multirole fighter, and it could lug up to seventeen thousand pounds of munitions or electronic-warfare gear on its eleven hardpoints, including a new generation of precision guided weapons such as Maverick missiles and laser-guided bombs. A twenty-millimeter Vulcan cannon in the lower fuselage served as a backup weapon.

Ironically, while the Fighter Mafia had little faith in guided missile technology, the F-16 arrived just when such weapons attained a new level of efficiency, and the Falcon’s APG-66 doppler radar, Heads Up Display and targeting computers were able to leverage these weapons to deadly effect. This was demonstrated in June 1982, when Israeli F-15s and F-16As engaged in a massive three-day air battle over the Bekaa Valley against Syrian jet fighters. The Israeli Falcons downed forty-four Syrian MiG-21s and -23s without suffering a single loss. A year earlier in 1981, the Falcons had demonstrated their versatility when eight of the brand-new fighters bombed the Osirak reactor in Baghdad with sixteen two-thousand-pound Mark 84 bombs, bringing Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program to a halt.