$14 Billion Contract Marks Start of New Push to Build US F-16 Fighters for Partner Nations

U.S. Air Force F-16 during a mission at Eglin Air Force Base
A U.S. Air Force F-16 is shown during a mission at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, Feb. 14, 2019. (John Raven/U.S. Air Force)

The U.S. Air Force has awarded a $14 billion contract to Lockheed Martin to build new F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets for five countries through 2026.

The service on Monday announced a contract for the production of 128 Block 70/72 jets, the latest and most advanced version of the venerable fourth-generation fighter, on behalf of Bahrain, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Morocco.

Lockheed moved its production line from Texas to its Greenville, South Carolina, plant in 2019 to centralize its manufacturing of F-16s. The aircraft has been updated since the last jet was delivered to the Air Force in 2005, and the service "has seen an uptick of our partner nations requesting detailed information and requests for U.S. Government sales," Col. Anthony Walker, senior materiel leader for the service's international division, said in a release.

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"This new production line is very significant," added Col. Brian Pearson, integrated product team lead for F-16 foreign military sales within the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center's Fighters and Advanced Aircraft Directorate.

"There are 25 nations operating F-16s today, and they have a lot of expertise with the airframe," Pearson said in the release. "The line helps us meet the global demand that a number of nations have for [F-16] aircraft and gives us the additional capability to provide the aircraft to countries interested in purchasing it for the first time."

The new block configurations are expected to come off the production line next year, the release states.

The service will simultaneously work to upgrade more than 400 aging F-16s for four partner nations to the new "F-16V" configuration, which includes the APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radars.

The F-16V made its maiden flight with the Northrop Grumman Corp.-made radars in October 2015. The advanced AESA on the F-16V, known as the Viper, helps achieve better performance during air-to-ground missions, according to Northrop. Raytheon also manufactures the radars.

The Air Force has ambitious goals to build up a network of coalition partners who fly similar aircraft.

While touting the service's light attack effort in 2018, then-Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said partners around the world cannot always afford state-of-the-art aircraft like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but want to build on interoperability as part of a joint effort.

"F-16s are operational across the globe and are a key capability fortifying the security of our international partners," Brig. Gen. Dale White, the program executive officer for Fighters and Advanced Aircraft, said in the release.

The Air Force is in the process of determining the right mix of fourth-, fifth- and future-generation aircraft, with plans to eventually downsize from seven types of fighter jets or attack aircraft.

"My intent is to get down to about four," Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said during a panel last week.

Brown called the initiative "four plus one," including the F-35, F-16 and A-10 Warthog, as well as the F-15EX Eagle II, which entered the service's inventory last month, and the Next Generation Air Dominance program, which defies the traditional categorization of a single platform, featuring a network potentially including an advanced fighter aircraft alongside sensors, weapons or drones.

Noticeably absent from his list were the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter and F-15E Strike Eagle.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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