The Air Force has authorized Lockheed Martin Corp. to extend the life of the F-16 multi-role fighter for decades longer, officials announced Wednesday.
The modification program would boost the overall flight hours of the jet from 8,000 to 12,000, Lockheed said in a release.
“Following F-16 Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) structural modifications, the U.S. Air Force could safely operate Block 40-52 aircraft to 2048 and beyond,” the release said.
The world's largest defense contractor, based in Bethesda, Maryland, said the move would also lower life sustainment costs on the jet, but didn't provide a projected savings figure.
The program would extend the flight hour limit of up to 300 F-16C/D Block 40-52 aircraft, and would supplement both U.S. and allied combat air fleets as they integrate with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the announcement said.
"Combined with F-16 avionics modernization programs like the F-16V, SLEP modifications demonstrate that the Fighting Falcon remains a highly capable and affordable 4th Generation option for the U.S. Air Force and international F-16 customers,” said Susan Ouzts, vice president of Lockheed Martin's F-16 program.
The latest update comes after Air Force officials have said the F-16 is intended to replace the F-15C/D variants. Both the active-duty component and Air National Guard are considering retiring the Boeing-made Eagle, service officials told the House Armed Services Subcommittee during a hearing on March 22.
The F-16 Fighting Falcon could take over missions from the F-15, they said.
“Because they’re talking about retiring aircraft that are in the Guard, those are primarily the ones that would be doing the air sovereignty mission, the U.S. air defense,” a defense analyst in Washington, D.C. told Military.com on background recently.
“You don’t need a sophisticated fighter for that,” he said of the mission, headed by Northern Command, to dispatch planes when they get to close to U.S. borders, need to go up and identify an aircraft, or escort, for example, a civilian plane out of a temporarily restricted fly zone.
“The F-16 could fit into that role well even if it’s not optimized for air superiority” beyond that mission, he added.
That same week, officials at Lockheed told DefenseOne it plans to move the F-16 production line to South Carolina from Fort Worth, Texas, where it built the single-engine fighters for more than 40 years.
As of Sept. 30, the Air Force had 949 Fighting Falcons, according to Air Force inventory figures obtained by Military.com.
The Air Force claims it has the capacity in the F-16C community "to recapitalize … radar to serve the same function as the F-15 has done and thereby reduce the different systems that we have to sustain and operate, so that makes it more efficient," said Maj. Gen. Scott D. West, director of current operations and the service’s deputy chief of staff for operations at the Pentagon.
The effort will help minimize the number of systems pilots operate, West said during the hearing on Capitol Hill.