The Air Force is surging ahead with work to extend the service life of its fleet of F-16 fighter jets despite recent budget cuts to programs aimed at upgrading the planes, service officials said.
The service is in the early phases of a Service Life Extension Program, or SLEP, for about 300 of its fleet of 976 F-16s designed to add eight to ten years of additional combat life to the aircraft, said Maj. Sean Tucker, F-16 program element monitor.
The SLEP, which aims to change the service life of an F-16 from 8,000 flying hours up to 10,000 or 12,000 flying hours, is currently conducting durability testing at Naval Air Station Fort Worth, Texas, where many Air Force F-16s are based.
The idea with the durability testing is to determine what structural modifications might be needed to strengthen the airframe, Tucker added.
“We strain and stress the aircraft in a manner that will simulate flight hours. We keep stressing it past a breaking point, allowing us to see what modifications we are going to need to do for our active fleet,” he said. “Then we’ll determine what’s needed to extend the service life – which could be bulkheads reworked, replaced or beefed up with additional material.”
The durability testing might result in the installation of new skins or a new fuselage for the aircraft, Tucker added.
The SLEP program, which has been underway for several years, plans to finalize a design by 2015 and be producing add-on kits or needed hardware for the planes by 2017. While the initial F-16s were designed and produced in the 1970s, many of the most modern F-16s were produced in the 1990s.
The last F-16 was delivered in 2005, service officials said. A SLEP could extend the service life of some F-16s into the 2030s, Tucker explained.
The SLEP program is taking place in a broader budget context wherein F-16 upgrades have been reduced or cut. The fiscal year 2015 budget proposal cancels funding for an F-16 upgrade program known as Combat Avionics Program Extension Suite, or CAPES.
The CAPES program consisted of electronic warfare suite and intelligence broadcast system upgrades, among other things. The $1.9 billion CAPES effort was still in development and had not yet been applied to aircraft.
There are other upgrades to the F-16 which are going forward. One in particular, called operational flight program, improves weapons capability of the plane, adds a friend of foe identifier and installs automatic ground collision avoidance system, Tucker explained.
These upgrades, which are slated to unfold sequentially over the next few years, also plan to integrate the F-16 aircraft with the AIM-9X Block II missile which, among other things, brings lock-on-after launch capability, service officials said.