Navy Will Get Air Force F-16 Fighter Jets to Fill Super Hornet Gap

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F-16 Fighting Falcons from Luke Air Force Base
F-16 Fighting Falcons from Luke Air Force Base, Ariz. taxi toward the hangars after arriving at Holloman Air Force Base, N.M., June 16, 2015. (U.S. Air Force photo/Emily Kenney)

The U.S. Navy is preparing to receive F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jets from the Air Force as it moves to rid its inventory of legacy F/A-18 Hornet models used in its Reserve fleets, according to its fiscal 2022 budget request.

The Navy will shelve roughly 55 aircraft over the next year, the documents state, in hopes of transitioning to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. But to make sure it has enough fighters available amid the conversion, it expects the Air Force to transfer some F-16s to it.

"This divestment reduces long-term support cost of older [Hornets] while retaining adversary capacity," the documents state, but do not specify the number of F-16s needed. Seapower Magazine reported earlier this month the F-16s could come from Air National Guard units.

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The Drive reported the F-16s will be used for aggressor training, or to act as enemy forces in air-to-air training.

The service is moving to reduce its fighter force and focus on the Super Hornet; the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter; and the F/A-18 follow-on aircraft, currently known as the F/A-XX, which defies traditional categorization as a single aircraft platform or technology -- potentially using a fighter flying alongside artificial intelligence-enhanced drones. The service is weighing whether the F/A-XX will be manned, unmanned or partially autonomous, Navy officials have said.

The Navy has accepted F-16s before, with 26 special F-16N versions -- 22 single-seat and four two-seater aircraft -- used between 1988 and 1998 for aggressor training. Following the retirement of the N models, the service acquired 14 F-16s originally slated for the Pakistani air force in the early 2000s, which it currently uses at its "Topgun" school at Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada.

Air Force officials have said the F-16 still has a place in its fleet for now, even as it reduces the number of types of fighter jets and attack aircraft it keeps.

"The newer block [F-16s] that have been upgraded are going to fly for some time," said Lt. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for strategy, integration and requirements.

The Air Force will weigh what types of roles or mission sets make sense for the F-16 as a multirole fighter -- including homeland defense -- and whether the newer aircraft can be upgraded down the line, Hinote said in an interview with Military.com earlier this month.

Air Force Magazine reported that the service will introduce a program known as Multirole Fighter-X, or MR-X, later this decade. It is expected to join the service's inventory in the mid-2030s, according to the magazine.

Hinote said it's possible F-16s could fill the MR-X role. But if upgrades are too extensive or too costly, the next MR-X could be a "clean sheet" fighter design.

"That would be a digitally designed new type of fighter affordable mainly for missions where survivability is not the most important concern," he said, referring to homeland defense over a near-peer conflict.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles "CQ" Brown said he's open to something beyond the F-16 for the future multirole jet.

"Let's not just buy off the shelf; let's actually take a look at something else out there that we can build," Brown said during a Defense Writers Group virtual chat with reporters in February.

Like Hinote, Brown said that the service wants something that can be economically sustainable, digitally designed, produced quickly and has an open-architecture software system that can be rapidly modified to keep up with missions.

"I want to be able to build something new and different that's not the F-16, that has some of those capabilities, but gets there faster and features a digital approach," he said in February.

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

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