Why The F-16 Fighter Still Strikes Fear Into Russia And China

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: If the agile little fighter has any shortcomings, it’s that the American F-16’s radar has fallen out of date, and that the type was never designed to carry a great deal of fuel, limiting its combat radius to just 340 miles on internal stores.

The F-16 Fighting Falcon bears an unusual distinctions: it is one of the only top jet fighters in the world to also be cost efficient. Fast and extremely agile, the light fighter does have some shortcomings in range and payload compared to larger twin-engine fighters like the F-15 Eagle, but that was easy to forgive due to costing less than half as much—around $18 million in 1999 ($27 million in 2017 dollars). This favorable bang-for-buck ratio has not been lost on air forces across the world—the F-16 currently remains the most popular aircraft in modern military service: out of 4,500 produced, nearly 2,700 currently remain in service in around twenty-six countries. Needless to say, the cutting-edge fourth-generation fighter of the 1980s will remain with us for a good while longer.

The F-16 was born out of the conundrum experienced by the Air Force in the Vietnam War. Fast and heavy F-4 Phantom fighters had underperformed against the North Vietnamese Air Force, due to their immature long-range missile technology and lack of aptitude for tight maneuvering in dogfights. This led a faction known as the Fighter Mafia to argue that Air Force had its design priorities all wrong, and that what was really needed was a relatively cheap, lightweight airframe that maximized energy for short-range dogfights, rather than another heavy twin-engine fighter like the F-15 Eagle that was then under development, which would doubtlessly be over-reliant on defective guided missiles. (In fact, the Eagle went on to prove it was in fact possible to create a very maneuverable twin-engine jet fighter, if you didn’t mind the cost—and air-to-air missiles would improve dramatically as well.)

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