Chair Force Engineer

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Falcon Plucker

The F-16 Fighting Falcon, nearly 30 years after first entering production, is still the backbone of America's tactical fighter force. In over 70 dogfights, the F-16 has emerged the victor every time. When grunts on the ground need firepower, the F-16 is there with a reasonable dose of fire and steel.

Yet there are many myths that still persist about the F-16 which don't go challenged. They are certainly part of the plane's myhtos, and something the fighter jock community wants to preserve. But they also create false beliefs in the plane's strengths and capabilities that can prove fatal.

1. The F-16 is a model of a well-run aircraft acquisition program, employing the spiral development model. FALSE. If anything, the F-16 is a textbook example of what people in the acquisition community call "requirements creep."

The idea for the F-16 was sired from the fact that the new air superiority fighter, the F-15 Eagle, was too expensive for 1:1 replacement of the F-4 Phantom. The Fighter Mafia, a group of influential tacticians led by John Boyd, pushed for a lightweight fighter with a lot of thrust, which could out-maneuver any airplane in a dogfight.

The requirements for a Lightweight Fighter (LWF) were issued, and two competing aircraft were flown against each other in 1974: the YF-16 and YF-17. The contest went to the YF-16, due to its superior range and maneuverability.

But the Air Force had second thoughts about the very narrow mission of the LWF, which was to defeat enemy aircraft in dogfights. The F-16 soon gained the role of tactical bombing. Northrop's YF-17 was actually the better platform for the air-to-ground mission. Unlike the F-16, it wasn't naturally unstable, and it was a steadier platform for air-to-ground missions. This certainly played a factor when the US Navy chose the YF-17 (reborn as the F/A-18) over the F-16.

Since its conception, the F-16 has seen more capabilities crammed into its airframe. More air-to-ground munitions like the Maverick were integrated. Block 30 saw the introduction of AMRAAM compatibility (eliminating the case for a highly-maneuverable fighter,) Block 40 added all-weather, precision-strike capabilities, and Block 50 allowed the plane to suppress enemy radars. These are all capabilities that had existed in different variants of the F-4 Phantom; the lightweight F-16 was quickly growing into a smaller version of an airplane that was nicknamed "Rhino."

All of these changes came at the expense of performance. Pilots noted a dramatic decrease in performance when the Block 15 aircraft came out with bigger tailplanes. Block 40 had beefier wheels to accomodate heavier weapons loads. With Block 50, the structure of the plane has gotten heavier to better withstand heavier loads.

What started out as a lightweight fighter is now an affordable replacement for the F-4 Phantom. While the F-16 has served admirably in this role (in the same vein as the Shooting Star and Thunderjet from the Korean War, and the Thunderchief and Phantom from Vietnam,) it's a far cry from what Harry Hillaker originally had in mind when he dreamed up the F-16.

2. The F-16 is a Mach 2 fighter. TECHNICALLY TRUE, BUT DECEPTIVE. A wise rocket sage once put the question to me, "The F-16 has one engine. The F-15 has two of the F-16's engines, weighs twice as much, but goes faster. Why is that?" I pondered the question for a moment before he explained to me that the F-16 has a normal shock inlet (instead of the F-15's oblique shock inlet) which limits its top speed. He also pointed out the aluminum leading edges of the F-16, which are not built to withstand Mach 2 flight for any given period of time.

I didn't believe him at first when he told me that the F-16 wasn't capable of Mach 2. All of the Air Force fact sheets said so. I decided to go to the source, a former F-16 pilot who had flown the Block 10, 15 and 25 aircraft. He told me that while Mach 2 was capable above certain altitudes, the fastest he had ever gone was Mach 1.2. I also suspect that in order to see Mach 2 in an F-16, you'd have to burn so much fuel in afterburner that your Mach 2 dash would have no military utility.

To the F-16's credit, the F-15 probably uses a lot of fuel in afterburner too; I really don't see any situation where the F-15's top speed (around Mach 2.5) would be militarily useful. It's more effective when you can cruise at speeds above Mach 1 without the aid of a gas-guzzling afterburner, like the F-22 does. I've heard that F-16's with the GE F110 engine can also cruise supersonically, but the F-22 is truly optimized for it.

3. The F-16XL was the greatest thing since sliced bread. FALSE. This is a whopper I would love to believe, because the "XL" variant of the F-16 was a beautiful airplane, with its cranked arrow wing. The XL had increased capacity for internal fuel and could carry a heavier weapons load, which is just what the F-16 needed for the strike mission it was eventually tasked with. However, it had to compete against the F-15E Strike Eagle, and it tried to replace the much bigger F-111 Aardvark. The Strike Eagle was an even better strike platform, and its twin engines pushed it at speeds faster than the poor little XL could dream of.

I remember reading an old issue of Air Force Magazine from 1982, stating that the XL had double the range/payload of the standard F-16, and could take off with just 2/3 the runway length that the F-16 required. The first claim about range and payload is probably true; the bit about shorter takeoffs is extremely disingenuous. It may be true if the XL is carrying a minimal fuel load, so that it has a takeoff weight equal to the standard F-16 (and a lower wing loading, due to the XL's greater wing area.) Once the F-16XL was loaded up with a useful fuel and weapons load, its takeoff performance was actually worse than the standard F-16. Not only was it a heavier airplane, but it lacked any leading-edge devices like slats to help reduce the takeoff distance. At least the standard F-16 has leading-edge flaps.

A retired flight-test engineer from the F-16XL program put it to me this way: F=ma (yes, Newton's classic second law.) But it's a simple way of explaining the F-16XL's sluggish performance. It had the same amount of thrust from the same engine as the standard F-16, but it weighed almost twice as much. The drag profile on the XL was probably better than the standard F-16, but not by enough to offset the mass penalty.

In short, the F-16XL would have probably been an excellent mud-mover if tasked with the current strike missions that F-16's perform. But it was misplaced in the medium bomber role, where it couldn't hold a candle to the Strike Eagle or the Aardvark. The excellent dogfighting capabilities of the F-16 would have also been lost had the XL gone into production.