Just the other day it was reported that one of the bedrocks of U.S. air power, the F-16 fleet, had a major problem. Apparently, in late July, cracks were discovered on the canopy sill longeron of an F-16D. This is part of the frame of the aircraft that surrounds the cockpit area. The longeron is what the canopy sits on when in the closed position. The Air Force quickly sent out a directive to inspect all operational F-16s. This inspection discovered that 82 of the service’s 157 F-16D models, more than half, needed to be grounded. The Air Force also sent out a notice to all the allied and partner countries that fly the aircraft about a potential problem with the F-16 canopy. Because the cause of the problem has yet to be identified and a solution developed, it is possible that these 82 U.S. F-16s or even the entire fleet might be grounded for a protracted period of time. This not only impacts the availability of a significant number of Air Force fighter squadrons at a time of greater global insecurity but has a ripple effect on operations, readiness and training.
The F-16 first flew in 1973 and variants have been in continuous production for some 40 years. The standard two-seat D model and its companion single-seat C model were first flown in 1984 but the current upgraded versions, Block 50D/52D, first entered production in 1990. Not exactly a new airplane, but not all that old given an expected airframe life of 8,000 flying hours or more than 30 years, even without a mid-life upgrade. Most important, it is certainly not an aircraft you would think still needed to have the bugs worked out.
So where are the critics, the ones who have never let a single technical glitch in the F-35 program pass without shouts of glee, an aircraft still in development, mind you, when the F-16 develops a serious problem? You mean to tell me that a problem with the helmet-mounted display system, delays in delivering software or a single engine fire are reason enough in their minds to cancel the program for the world’s premier fifth-generation tactical fighter, but they are silent on the fact that more than 80 F-16s to date have developed fuselage cracks? Where was the office of Operational Test and Evaluation when this obviously flawed airplane was tested and certified? Was this another plot by the military-industrial complex to foist an inadequate and too expensive weapons system on the military and the American taxpayer? Perhaps this program was a mistake; maybe the Air Force should have stuck to the old, reliable F-4.
Where are those strategic thinkers who assert that we don’t need the F-35, that our current fleet of tactical fighters (which includes the F-16) is good enough against not just today’s threats but those of the next 20 years? One reason for the problems with these F-16s is that we have flown them hard, asking them to perform missions for which they were never designed. They have performed extremely well. But the central point is that times change, threats are becoming more stressing, the flying environments are more complex and there are limits to what you can do with 30-year-old airframes even if some of the internal systems are new. Senior military officers have publicly testified that the current fourth-generation fighter fleet cannot survive in the expected air defense environments of the next decade.
Another point that needs to be made is that the surprise canopy cracks in the F-16 fleet are a problem that senior Air Force leaders have warned about for years. Large portions of their inventory including aerial refueling tankers, ISR platforms, tactical fighters and strategic bombers are old, and as a result there is the growing danger of a surprise, catastrophic problem that would require the grounding of an entire fleet. Imagine the impact on U.S. national security if the KC -135s, the E-3 AWACS or B-52 bomber fleets had to be grounded. That is why timely modernization is imperative.
So, talk about a double standard. Worse, the F-35 is being held to a phony standard. Most of the critics of the program know just how hard it is, how long it takes, and how fraught with bumps and potholes the path is to develop and deploy a new, state-of-the-art military aircraft. Even when successful, stuff continues to happen. So either they should jump on the F-16 with equal vigor or just rethink their critiques of the F-35.
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