According to a recent interview in Air Force Magazine, the venerable F-16 fighter jet will continue to serve in the U.S. Air Force for up to another twenty years. While it lacks some of the capabilities of a dedicated 5th generation stealth fighter, the F-16 is a tried-and-true platform that can perform many lower-end duties.
The F-16 fighter jet is “one airplane that can do a lot of low-end missions, and remarkably cheaper than a fifth-generation platform, and it can do them well,” Lt. Gen. David S. Nahom explained to Air Force Magazine.
The jet can “satisfy an objective in the Middle East and a week later, fly [combat air patrol] over a point on the U.S., and do a homeland defense sortie. It’s pretty amazing. And do that at half … [the] operating cost of any other air platform we have out there.”
Nahom thinks that the U.S. Air Force can squeeze … another 18-20 years” out of the platform.
He compared the F-16 to the A-10, a close air support platform that excels in that role in an environment with little or no air defenses. Though the A-10 performs close air support exceedingly well, it cannot conduct homeland defense duties nearly as well as the F-16.
The Air Force initially paired the single-engine F-16 with the dual-engine F-15, a pairing known as a high-low mix that saw large numbers of F-16s fly with fewer numbers of higher-performance F-15s.
And while the Air Force has several new fighters in the development pipeline, its future force structure could look very different than the typical high-low mix.
Instead, the Air Force will rely on large numbers of F-16 fighters and medium to high capability F-35 fighters, with aircraft only able to operate in uncontested environments on one end, and highly capable, highly stealthy fifth-generation fighters like the F-22 and new sixth-generation fighters on the other end.
One of the crucial future questions is what exactly will replace the F-16. “Let’s fast forward to the 2035/2036-ish timeframe. Is there still a need for that low-cost platform? I think, right now, there is,” Nahom said in an interview.
“And what does it look like? Do we replace it with another F-16-looking thing? Did the F-35 come down in cost enough where we can buy more of them? Is it something else? Is it unmanned at that point, because we can do things differently?”
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.
Image: U.S. Air Force/Flickr.