Key point: The new paint is supposed to be radar-absorbent.
A Texas Air National Guard fighter squadron flying F-16s is one of the first units to paint its planes in a new, radar-absorbing paint scheme. The paint signals the Air Force’s reluctant decision to keep old F-16s flying through the 2020s, at least.
The Air National Guard’s paint facility in Sioux City, Iowa in mid-December 2019 rolled out a Block 30 F-16C with the new version the Have Glass paint jobs. The F-16C, a Block 30 model, belongs to the 149th Fighter Wing flying out of Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
“The new, single-color paint scheme is a recent departure from the older two-tone gray paint scheme normally associated with F-16’s that belong to the United States Air Force,” the Pentagon stated.
Most American F-16s for decades have worn a mostly light-gray paint scheme. Since around 2012, however, the Air Force under the Have Glass V initiative slowly has been applying a new, single-tone, dark-gray livery to some F-16s
The new ferromagnetic paint, which can absorb radar energy, first appeared on some of the roughly 200 F-16s the Air Force assigns to the dangerous suppression-of-enemy-air-defenses, or SEAD, mission. SEAD squadrons reside in Minnesota, South Carolina, Germany and Japan.
The Texas Air National Guard F-16 apparently is the first Block 30 F-16 to receive a variant of the Have Glass V paint. Where previous Have Glass V paint jobs included a lighter-tone radar radome, the current scheme covers both the radome and the rest of the plane in the same, dark tone.
No paint can compensate for a plane's shape. In particular, the shapes of its wings, engine inlet and engine nozzle. Square shapes, right angles and perpendicular planes such as engine turbines strongly reflect radar waves.
Even with Have Glass, the F-16 on average has a 1.2-square-meter radar cross-section, according to Globalsecurity, while the F-22 and F-35 boast RCSs smaller than .005 square meters.
So the Have Glass V F-16s aren’t stealth fighters. But they are stealthier than are F-16s with older paint schemes. Since Have Glass V undoubtedly is expensive, the Air Force logically prioritized repainting planes in units flying the dangerous SEAD mission.
It’s noteworthy that Block 30 F-16s, which first appeared in 1986, also are getting Have Glass V treatment. The roughly 300 Block 30s are some of the oldest fighters in the Air Force inventory, and strictly fly with Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve units.
The Air Force for years struggled to define a replacement plan for the Block 30 F-16s, which on average have accumulated more than 7,000 flight hours. The F-35 eventually could replace the Block 30s. But with F-35 production rates fall far below projections, even under the best of circumstances it could take a decade or more to replace all the Block 30s.
The 149th Fighter Wing is one of several Air National Guard units that for years has lobbied the Air Force to bump it higher in the list for new F-35s. But the flying branch so far has tapped Guard wings in Vermont, Wisconsin and Alabama to get F-35s, leaving a couple dozen other units in limbo for the time being.
Conceding that it cannot acquire F-35s fast enough, the Air Force now plans to conduct a service-life extension on more than 800 of its roughly 900 F-16s, apparently skipping over only the oldest Block 25 models that entered service in the early 1980s.
The life-extension could help the Block 30s fly for a few years longer. Some Block 30s also are receiving new electronically-scanned-array radars to replace their old analogue units. Stealther paint also helps the aging F-16s stay relevant.
The U.S. Air Force isn’t the only air arm to apply radar-absorbing paint to otherwise non-stealthy fighters. The Chinese air force in early 2019 also began applying ferromagnetic paint to its roughly 50 J-16s fighters.
The J-16 is an upgraded version of the older J-11 fighter that China copied from the Russian Su-27.