Why the limited modernization of the F-16 Block 50 is wrong

From Savvas D. Vlassis

Last June, Turkish sources leaked interest in a possible supply of EF-2000 Typhoon fighters, should Washington not approve the request submitted in 2021 to sell 40 F-16Vs and upgrade about 80 existing F-16s to that version.

On September 23, Presidency spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in an interview “We are negotiating with Europe regarding the Eurofighter. Turkey will never be without alternatives”. This was followed a few days later by the visit of the Turkish Minister of Defense to Great Britain.

On October 23, the British Defense Secretary announced that the sale of the Typhoon to Turkey was being sought, confirming that bilateral discussions were underway.

It is clear that this movement is promoted by Ankara in order to act as a lever of pressure towards Washington. As it is also clear that this is a more reliable “threat” compared to the rather childish ones launched by the Turks until last September, about switching to the Russian Sukhoi.

The possibility of a Typhoon supply is treated with caution for objective reasons. The Turkish Air Force is built around the F-16, enjoying high standardization and savings at every level. The introduction of a non-American fighter would seriously disrupt this situation and potentially compromise the availability index.

As the intention of the Turkish Air Force is to cover the gap from the cancellation of the F-35, until the operational integration of the National Fighter Aircraft (MMU) around the mid-2030s, the procurement of at least 40 Typhoons is logically required. Operationally, these planes would negate the Air Force’s advantage of having the Meteor air-to-air missile. Strategically, working with Great Britain on the Typhoon would strengthen cooperation on the MMU, taking advantage of technological developments for the former that could be integrated into the latter.

However, despite the obstacles that have been raised in the US to approve the Turkish request for F-16Vs, there is a general feeling that President Biden is setting the Turkish presidential election on June 18, 2023 as a milestone. At least until then, it is estimated that there will be no the “gift” of F-16Vs to President Erdogan.

The intention of the US to approve the F-16V sale is evident from the mere fact that it is not ruling it out in the first place, placing it within the existing framework of the CAATSA sanctions imposed on Turkey. On top of that, as the pending matter arising from the F-35 is related to Lockheed Martin, it is natural for the Turkish side to claim the return of the invested Turkish resources towards this particular manufacturer. As the F-16V is a product of Lockheed Martin, the expression of interest in it as an alternative is perfectly normal.

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The request for the supply of 40 new build F-16 Block 70 with an upgrade of “almost” 80 existing ones to this version, specifies the ceiling of 4th + generation fighter forces, which is of interest to the Turkish Air Force around 2030. At these 120 fighters, it is supposed to gradually add about 100-120 MMU over the next decade. Therefore, based on this very likely threat assessment, the planning of the PA must also be done. Numerically, the Turkish Air Force is expected to aim for a strength of around 250 fighters and the PA around 200.

To date, the PA has supported its modernization and development with the upgrade program of 83 F-16Vs and the procurement of 24 Rafale F3Rs, and in the long term, with the procurement of at least 20 F-35s. It is widely believed that even with just one Rafale Squadron, the PA gains a serious qualitative advantage over the threat. This advantage is expanded by the addition of the F-16V. However, what needs to be taken into account now is the “projection of force” until at least 2035, when the two air forces’ launched or planned programs will have paid off and the MMU will begin to appear.

Today the Turkish Air Force has 234 fighters (29 F-16 Block 50+, 70 F-16 Block 50M, 100 F-16 Block 40M and 35 F-16 Block 30M). In 2035, if the 120 F-16Vs go ahead, they will be joined by 19 F-16 Block 50M and 100 F-16 Block 40M, for a total of 239.

The Turkish target for 120 F-16Vs will exceed the PA’s total of 107 Rafale and F-16Vs, broadly balancing on “equivalent” planes with AESA radar technology.

Around 2035, the PA may have an additional 20 F-35As, 24 Mirage 2000-5 Mk2s, and 38 F-16 Block 50+ (currently sought to be upgraded) for a total of 189 aircraft.

The PA appears to have 127 advanced fighters but will be outnumbered by about 50 fighters. For this reason, it is imperative to pursue the greatest possible quality sign in the least strength.

In the above equation, however, we must take into account the expressed Turkish intention to upgrade the F-16 fleet with a Turkish-developed (with American assistance apparently) AESA radar, which is included as a target in the ÖZGÜR Program. In total, the said program aims at approximately a Turkish version of the V configuration. The declared start of installation of the AESA radar from 2023, initially on the F-16 Block 30M and then on the Block 40M/50M, means that in 2035 , AESA technology radar will potentially carry all 239 fighters!

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This perspective means that the technological superiority of the PA due to the Rafale and F-35 will be undermined to one degree or another by the numerical superiority of a fairly homogenized fleet of Turkish F-16s. In addition, in PA, three Squadrons with Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 and upgraded F-16 Block 50+ will lag behind technologically and operationally, due to lack of AESA radar. As the investments are not made for a temporary result but the maximization of their return is sought, it is rather self-evident that the search for alternative solutions for PA should be problematic.

The obvious choice is to upgrade all 38 Block 50 F-16s to F-16Vs.

The F-16V program of the PA is developing “wrong” today. It was routed and contracted by a government that did not devote significant resources to the modernization of the Armed Forces. A casualty of this policy was the original intention to upgrade all of the F-16s, drastically cutting it to only about half the force. Indicative of the cost compression effort was the exclusion of even the procurement of 30 Sniper ATP targeting spindles costing €90 million from the contract with a total cost of €1,232,351,577.

This situation led today to the promotion of a program to upgrade the F-16 Block 50 to the M6.5 Capability configuration, with the transfer of LRUs removed from the 83 upgraded aircraft, enhanced with the additional Link 16 data link facility. The program is budgeted for 700 million €, because the supply of weapons and Sniper ATPs is included. The cost of upgrading the planes alone amounts to €420 million.

Since 2019, however, the government has changed and it is devoting much more money to investments in Defense and the Armed Forces. This data “allows” the design of operational criteria and a review of the hitherto insufficient approach to the overall F-16V program.

A point of attention is the intention to upgrade the F-16 Block 50 not in the EAB (due to the workload with the F-16Vs) but in a “second line”, which will be set up on the basis of the PA. This particular approach burdens the program with costs, for the related infrastructure preparations. If the 38 planes are simply added to the ODA line, the extra cost is eliminated. An increase in the overall cost of the program will result from the requirement to develop a prototype of this version and of course due to the addition of additional systems such as the APG-83 radar etc.

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