America’s F-16 Fighter is Now 50 Years Old: How the Falcon Went From an Underdog to a Powerhouse

The F-16 Fighting Falcon on January 20, 2024 marked 50 years since its first flight in 1974, making it the second oldest fighter class still in production today other than the F-15 Eagle. The F-15 first flew in 1972 and was the first fourth generation fighter developed for a Western air force, with its extreme operational costs which made it unaffordable for widespread deployments necessitating the development of a lower end cheaper fighter to form the backbone of American and allied fleets. The result was a single engine fighter which used the same F110 engine as the F-15 for commonality of maintenance, but in single rather than twin configuration meaning it had just half the thrust and a much lower thrust-weight ratio. The F-16’s altitude ceiling, radar and speed were significantly less impressive than those of its primary competitor at the time the Soviet third generation MiG-23ML/MLD fighter, while it was considered totally incapable of engaging the USSR’s top third generation combat jet the MiG-25 Foxbat – which was a challenge even for the higher end F-15 to tackle. This was famously demonstrated by Pakistan Air Force F-16s’ impotence to stop Indian Air Force MiG-25 flights deep inside its airspace through much of the 1980s. The entry into service of the first Soviet fourth generation fighters the medium weight MiG-29 and heavyweight Su-27 from 1982 and 1984 further lowered the standing of the F-16. 

The F-16’s performance initially appeared far from remarkable, particularly as early variants lacked either precision strike capabilities to engage ground targets or beyond visual range air to air missiles which seriously limited the range of missions which they could be deployed for. The fighter would nevertheless become the most widely deployed of its generation and a major success on international markets, with multiple factors contributing to this. A primary factor was that the F-16 retained by far the lowest production and operational costs of any fourth generation fighter in the Western world, while its production on a very large scale for the U.S. Air Force provided the program with key economies of scale allowing it to better compete for contracts internationally. The political and economic clout of the United States was another leading contributor, with states seeking protection or superior economic ties with Washington widely acquiring the aircraft, while others such as Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia were delivered F-16s as major recipients of U.S. aid. With the Soviet fighter industry having outproduced America’s in every previous generation, the fact that the USSR did not produce a lightweight fighter in the fourth generation was another major factor in the F-16’s favour quantitatively speaking – as was the fact that the USSR disintegrated in 1991 which brought production of the MiG-29, which had previously been built at well over 100 aircraft per year, to an effective end. 

Primary initial attractions of the F-16 were its low operational costs and its impressive range for an aircraft of its size, while for visual range combat its low speed manoeuvrability was impressive for a Western fighter – although still far inferior to the MiG-29 or Su-27. A key to the fighter’s longevity in production, however, was the significant investment made in enhancing its capabilities. Notable milestones included integration of the AIM-7 Sparrow around 1988 belatedly providing the fighter with its first beyond visual range air to air capability, followed by the integration of the AIM-120 air to air missiles from 1992, providing active rather than semi-active radar guidance far superior to the AIM-7. The F-16 then integrated the AIM-9X visual range air to air missile in the mid-2000s, which combined with helmet mounted sights provided high off boresight targeting capabilities – and thus an overwhelmingly superior capability in short range engagements. Such targeting capabilities were first pioneered by the MiG-29 two decades prior, with development of the AIM-9X benefitting from studies of the MiG’s R-73 missile acquired by the United States through East Germany after German reunification. The service entry of an F-16 variant with an electronically scanned array radar from 2005 – the heavily customised F-16E/F Desert Falcon developed for the United Arab Emirates – was another very major milestone. The F-16’s notoriously small radar, under one third the size that of the Su-27 family of aircraft, meant its situational awareness with cutting edge sensors, although much improved, was still relatively low. 

The U.S. Air Force ceased acquisitions of the F-16 in 2005, although the aircraft has continued to be sold to developing countries unable for political or economic reasons to acquire the much more sophisticated fifth generation F-35. Taiwan, too, due to its effective status as a non state actor and lack of legitimised recognition by either the United States or the United Nations, and to the high possibility of technologies being compromised to the Chinese mainland, was offered only the F-16. Taipei in 2019 became responsible for the majority of the fighter’s order backlog with an $8.1 billion purchase. A key advantage the F-16 has had remains the continued investments made in its modernisation, contrasting particularly sharply with its less reliable French rival the Mirage 2000 which, while being much more costly, has seen no upgrade packages developed to equip it with modern air to air missiles or electronically scanned array radars.

While the rival MiG-29 has been seen by most clients as a less cost effective investment than its heavyweight counterpart the Su-27 in terms of both production and operational costs, the much greater cost discrepancy between the F-16 and the F-15 has meant that in America’s case the lighter aircraft in its high-low combination has been more popular. Thus while the Su-27 has far eclipsed the F-15 in production numbers, export clients, and in the range of modernised variants and advanced features developed, the F-16 has similarly eclipsed the MiG-29. Although when the Cold War ended the F-16 was a far less capable fighter than the MiG-29, the latest F-16 Block 70 variants are today considered to have significant advantages over the latest MiG-29M model in strike missions, visual range and beyond visual range combat, as although the F-16 airframe had less potential it has received the latest technologies and armaments available, Russia has not invested to comparably bring the MiG up to standards.