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The F-16 Block 60

A High-Tech Aircraft for a Volatile Region

Capt Gilles Van Nederveen, USAF*

Editor’s Note: PIREP is aviation shorthand for pilot report. It’s a means for one pilot to pass on current, potentially useful information to other pilots. In the same fashion, we intend to use this department to let readers know about aerospace-power items of interest. We intend to keep it flexible, so sometimes it may just call your attention to a recently published article in another journal; other times, we may provide in-depth coverage of a particular topic.

*Capt Gilles Van Nederveen, an associate editor of Aerospace Power Journal, is a career intelligence officer who flew on RC-135, EC-130, and E-8 aircraft. He has worked in both national and joint intelligence assignments.

The F-16 Block 60 is the latest variant of the popular and widely sold F-16. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) ordered 80 aircraft—55 single seaters and 25 dual seaters—for $8 billion (for details, see http://www.lmtas.com/News/ Press/F16/f16pr000305.html). UAE is buying the most sophisticated version of the F-16 and is investing almost $3 billion of its money into research and development. Writing in the 13 March 2000 issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, David Fulghum and John Morrocco observe that “this aircraft will be envied by USAF pilots.” This sale will also mark the first time that the United States has sold a better aircraft overseas than its own forces fly.

Controversy has surrounded the most advanced version of the F-16 since we announced its sale on 25 May 1999. Some people object to contributing to an arms race in a volatile area, while others oppose the sale of a superior weapon system overseas when the US Air Force itself cannot afford it. To sample the different viewpoints, see the Conventional Arms Transfer Project at http://www.clw.org/cat/index.html and the Federation of American Scientists at http://www.fas.org. Good background data is available from other aviation-related sites, such as Air Forces Monthly at http://www.airforcesmonthly.com, Jane’s International Defense Review at http://www. janes.com, and F-16 News at http://www.f-16.net/f16news.html. For Department of Defense (DOD) information about the sale of the aircraft, associated weapons, and congressional notifications, see http://www.defenselink.mil/news.

The Buyer

UAE, actually seven sheikdoms on the western shore of the Persian Gulf (see http://www. uae.org.ae), is trying to diversify its arms sources, as have other Persian Gulf states. In the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm, it bought French Mirage 2000s, but a faction in the UAE military pushed for a US fighter. By playing the United States and its European competitors against each other, UAE and other Persian Gulf states have acquired sophisticated weaponry at relatively low cost. After eliminating other modern fighters, such as the Rafale, Eurofighter, and Russian Su-37, UAE chose the F-16.

A unique country sometimes referred to as the “Singapore” of the Persian Gulf because of its workforce and commercial hub, UAE must depend upon outside or Western support because its military is too small to defend against any regional threat. The lack of unity among the seven sheikdoms has divided the command of UAE forces, with the Ministry of Defense located in Dubai and the General Headquarters in Abu Dhabi. Because of its small population base, UAE must continue to rely on Pakistani and British contract pilots and officers to operate its air force.

Anthony Cordesman’s Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE: Challenges of Security (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1997) charts the growth of UAE’s military and the current problems it faces as it tries to expand and modernize in the wake of Desert Storm. Cordesman also explains the complex relations of the entire Persian Gulf, such as the outstanding dispute with Iran over the ownership of the Abu Musa and Tunb islands in the Strait of Hormuz, occupied under the Shah of Iran in 1971 as British forces left the Gulf region in their “East of Suez” pullout.

The Aircraft

The F-16 Block 60, also known as the Desert Falcon, boasts the following features, which set it apart from the most modern Block 50 F-16s in the US Air Force inventory:

New F-110-GE-132 engine, which produces 32,000 lb of thrust (see http://www.f-16.net/f-16_versions.html ).

Missions conducted by Desert Falcons include air superiority, air and maritime surveillance, regional air defense, and precision ground attack. For more information, see Lockheed Martin’s web site on all its fighter aircraft programs, including the F-16 Block 60, at http://www.thefighterenterprise.com.

The Sale

Difficulties attendant upon the purchase of the Desert Falcons involved (1) “source codes,” which allow the reprogramming of onboard avionics, and (2) the ability to carry a standoff attack weapon—especially a cruise missile. The source codes that program the electronic-warfare, radar, and data buses are extremely controversial since the United States never exports them; instead, we will send UAE the “object codes,” which will allow it to add to the F-16’s threat library (see http://www.clw.org/cat/pr11-15-99.html).

After weeks of quiet diplomacy, the US State Department informed France—which wanted to export the Black Shahine—that that standoff weapon was in fact a cruise missile banned under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Since its range exceeds 300 km (the current defining limit for cruise missiles under the MTCR), international agreement regulates the export of such weapons. Because the terms of the sale allow the United States to regulate which weapons the F-16s can carry, we made it very clear that Lockheed Martin could not change the data bus to permit the aircraft to carry the Black Shahine. UAE, however, might modify some of its Mirage 2000-5s/-9s to carry the weapon (see http://www.janes.com). Furthermore, the AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile could have become a hard export, but when Qatar bought the French Mica beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile—the equivalent of the AIM-120—we dropped our objections. The AIM-120 and other state-of-the-art weaponry are now part of a $2 billion weapons package accompanying the F-16 contract (see http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Sep1998/m09161998_m143-98.html).

UAE also sees the Desert Falcon acquisition as a prestige issue, since all Persian Gulf countries have made or are in the process of making further purchases of fighter aircraft. Additionally, UAE will allow the US Air Force to use the new base that will house the 80 F-16s. According to the DOD statement accompanying the notification of sale to Congress, UAE has become a key regional ally who will help the United States with basing, access, and pre-positioning of material.

Supporting the sale, DOD has agreed that the Air National Guard at Tucson, Arizona, will conduct the initial cadre training. In addition, because of the UAE air force’s concern about the lag between contract signing and aircraft delivery, it intends to purchase 20 Dutch F-16As/Bs for training and familiarization purposes prior to the arrival of the newly built Desert Falcons. Although some parties consider the sale of the F-16 Block 60s controversial, in reality it enhances the capabilities of a key US regional partner and gives US Air Force expeditionary forces seamless integration in a crisis.  


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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