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F-16 Viper's sunset delay

FARNBOROUGH, England -- To celebrate the 4,500th F-16 Viper delivered in 2012  since it was introduced in 1974, Lockheed Martin showed a clip of the fourth generation fighter's first flight. Wings shaking left to right and then left again, the Viper barely made it off the runway before the pilot pulled its nose up and banked left.

Watching the grainy footage made it hard not to compare it to the shaky state of the defense aviation industry, and how almost 40 years later the F-16 is one of the few sure things in the fighter community. Air Force engineers can't figure out why the F-22 keeps suffocating its pilots. And try as they might to keep the F-35 program's struggles under wraps here at the Farnborough International Airshow, the F-35 program is in trouble.

It makes one think it was no coincidence that Lockheed Martin officials chose to offer its F-16 brief here directly after the F-35 pilots stepped off the stage, having described how flying the fighter "feels like magic."

The U.S. and the rest of the world's air forces' budgets are in trouble, save for a few like Saudi Arabia. Air force leaders have to pinch pennies to include operations and maintenance expenditures down to each aircraft's flying hour. It's during these comparisons that the F-16 makes sense for countries looking to afford as many planes as it can in its fleet.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Joe "Buzz" Walter presented a brief that has made its rounds through the Pentagon and Congress that shows how many more planes the Air Force could keep if it shifted some of its F-35 investment dollars toward upgrades to F-16s. Lockheed competitors have also apparently done the math as BAE Systems held a press conference here Wednesday announcing its offering for an F-16 avionics upgrade.

Floyd McConnell, vice president for BAE Systems' Integrated Avionics Solutions, said he forsees a multi-billion dollar market to upgrade F-16s whether it's in the U.S. or the international market. Twenty five countries fly the F-16 and McConnell says it's about time Lockheed Martin had some competition when offering upgrades to these buyers.

The U.S. Air Force has already offered Lockheed Martin a single source contract for the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES) that will include the installation of an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) fire control radar to a still to be determined number of F-16s. The Air Force also green lighted a service life extension program for 300 F-16s to make up for delays with the F-35 program.

Bill McHenry, Lockheed Martin's director of F-16 business development, was cagey when asked if his company is making preparations for an increased amount of F-16 upgrades. It's an awkward question seeing how Lockheed Martin also builds the F-35, whose delays have caused an influx in F-16 requirements.

However, the need is real. South Korea has already signaled a need to upgrade 130 of it's F-16s and other countries might not be far behind.

Walking around Farnborough this week made it clear by the lack of new aircraft purchase announcements that keeping what's old new again is a priority. And those countries who plan to purchase upgrades expect discounts. That's why it would come as no surprise if other aerospace companies line up behind BAE Systems to challenge Lockheed Martin to upgrade a fleet stalwart like the F-16 Fighting Falcon.

"It's the systems not the aircraft that's going to make the [F-16] relevant," McConnell said.

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