Third American F-16 Fighter Crashes in South Korea in Under Nine Months

The U.S. Air Force on January 31 confirmed that an F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth generation fighter aircraft under the 8th Fighter Wing had fallen into the sea near the western South Korean city of Gunsan, after local media had reported such a crash earlier in the day. The website of Kunsan Air Base, which hosts the bulk of the American fighter fleet in Korea including two F-16 squadrons, reported regarding the incident: “An F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 8th Fighter Wing here experienced an in-flight emergency … The pilot ejected safely … He is conscious and was transported to a medical facility for assessment.” The crash is notably the latest of multiple incidents affecting U.S. Air Force F-16s in Korea, with one of the aircraft also from the 8th Fighter Wing having crashed 51 days prior on December 11 near Gunsan. Previously on May 6 another U.S. F-16 crashed in an agricultural field near Osan Air Base. 

The spate of F-16 crashes notably comes as the Republic of Korea Air Force, which deploys several times as many F-16s as the U.S. Air Force in the country at 161 aircraft, has not suffered a single recent crash. Since 2020 high crash rates in the U.S. Military, and the Air Force in particular, have raised growing questions regarding maintenance procedures. The latest crash notably came 11 days after the F-16 marked 50 years since its first flight on January 20, 1974, with the fighter class previously expected to have been largely retired by the mid-2020s. Delays to development of the F-35 fifth generation fighter, production on a small fraction of the previously planned scale, and serious overruns in maintenance needs and operational costs, have meant that F-35s can no longer be acquired in the numbers needed to replace F-16s, forcing the older aircraft to serve for many years longer than intended. 

The U.S. Air Force is currently considering options to develop a lightweight fighter based on the T-7 Trainer, which although less capable than the F-16 will provide a cheaper option to fill out combat units and allow for the retirement of ageing Cold War era aircraft. South Korea has placed orders for 85 F-35s, but will rely on the indigenous FA-50 and KF-21 fighters to replace most of its legacy Cold War era aircraft. The F-16 and F-35 are both considered light fighters for their respective generations, and were developed with single engine configurations to reduce maintenance needs and operational costs. A lack of a second engine as seen on most American fighters, however, increases their risk of accidents relative to twin engine fighter classes such as the F-15 and F-18. It remains uncertain whether any of the three F-16 crashes in Korea over the past year were related to engine issues, while for the F-35 software issues have caused a significantly greater danger to pilots than the engines.