The F-16 Fighting Falcon has proven itself to be one of the world’s most successful combat aircraft, having now flown over 400,000 combat sorties and a combined 19 million flight hours. There are roughly 3,000 operational F-16s today in service with the air services of 25 different countries, and the United States Air Force operates more F-16s than it does any other fighter model in its fleet. The F-16 has endured so long after its first introduction in 1979 both because of its proven performance in combat and as a result of the aircraft’s impressive cost-effectiveness, with the Falcon coming in at a significantly reduced cost compared to its larger fourth-generation counterpart in the F-15.
Even with the increasing proliferation of advanced fifth-generation fighters, the F-16 is receiving upgrades that will allow it to remain competitive in the air for years to come. Moving beyond the C/D variants of the aircraft that have become commonplace in many air forces around the world, the newest generation of F-16s – labeled the F-16V or “Viper” – are incorporating a number of technological enhancements that will further improve the F-16s combat capabilities.
First unveiled in 2012, the F-16 Viper integrates advanced technology appropriated from advanced fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 and F-22 in order to improve the newer F-16’s interoperability with those aircraft. Most notably, the F-16 Viper has been fitted with Northrup Grumman’s advanced APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, providing the Viper with fifth-generation radar capabilities. The addition of the APG-83 AESA radar affords F-16 pilots greatly enhanced situational awareness by granting greater detection and tracking ranges along with the ability to track more than twenty separate targets at a time, while also producing high-resolution Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) maps for precision strike operations in all types of environments and offering greatly increased system reliability.
Other key upgrades found on the F-16 Viper include a modern commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) avionics subsystem, an improved Center Pedestal Display (CPD), and an upgraded data bus.
The F-16 Viper is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney engine, and the aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 2 alone with a maximum range of 1,740 nautical miles. The Viper is capable of being equipped with a variety of air-to-air weapons systems and is also able to be outfitted for air-to-ground strikes with both tactical missiles and laser-guided bombs.
The F-16 Viper can either be produced itself or offered as an upgrade package for existing F-16s. To date, a number of countries have ordered either newly produced F-16 Vipers or the upgrade package, including Taiwan, Bahrain, and Bulgaria.
Eli Fuhrman is a contributing writer for The National Interest.