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Military Industrial Circus

Military intelligence for the rest of us. A weekly column posted every Monday.

My Very Own Warplane

A once-young reporter never forgets “his” first weapon system

F-16 Fighter Jet
An F-16 slips the surly bonds / Air Force photo / John Gordinier

They say you never forget your first car. Mine was a 1960 Morris Minor 1000, and, believe me, I’ve tried. I guess you never forget your first weapons system, either. Mine was the F-16, and I never will.

News that the plane’s production is coming to an end in the U.S. later this summer—and may, in fact, move overseas—brought back a flood of memories. Let’s face it: the F-16 looks—still looks, in my humble opinion—the way a jet fighter is supposed to look. Slick and slinky, it appears to be breaking the sound barrier even when sitting static on the tarmac (its successor—the F-35—looks dowdy by comparison).

I arrived in Washington in January 1979 as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, knowing that the Defense Department would be a key part of my beat. And the keyest part of that beat was going to be the Fort Worth-built F-16. General Dynamics had delivered the first production model to the Air Force a week before I arrived in D.C.

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General Dynamics was producing the F-16 on the west side of Fort Worth at the gargantuan Air Force Plant No. 4, a government-own facility that also had produced B-24 bombers and F-111 fighter-bombers. Nearly 20,000 Star-Telegram readers counted on their hometown newspaper to chart the ups and downs of the aircraft that put food on their tables. They wanted to know every detail that could affect its future.

Those blue-and-white collar workers needn’t have worried. During the F-16’s glory years, early in its production, a plane a day was rolling off the assembly line. Twenty-six air forces are flying more than 3,000 F-16s around the world; more than 4,500 have been built.

I had to get up to speed quickly: FYDPs, MTBFs and EPGs (Five-Year Defense Plan, Mean Time Between Failures, European Participating Governments) buzzed around like mosquitos at a picnic. The critical difference between congressional authorizations (“think of it like a credit card”) and appropriations (“think of it as cash”) had to be mastered. So did arcane terms like “flyaway cost”—emphasized by the Pentagon and General Dynamics, meaning the cost of buying one additional plane—and its true per-plane cost, which includes pesky things like development, related military construction and GFE (government-furnished equipment).

Headlines

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The stories covered by the Startlegram’s F-16 reporter ranged from serious to silly. We followed sales efforts, and reports of its first crashes. A contest to name the plane? Sure thing. The Air Force ended up dubbing it the Fighting Falcon (Dassault already had dubs on Falcon, for its business jet), although it has been known as the Viper to generations of Air Force pilots.

The F-16 was the brainchild of the so-called “fighter mafia,” a band of R&D renegades led by Air Force Colonel John Boyd and civilians Tom Christie and Pierre Sprey. They fought the Air Force’s institutional bias toward the bigger and more costly F-15 in favor a lighter and more agile plane.

After several months on the job, General Dynamics (which sold the F-16 line to Lockheed in 1993) invited me to see the F-16 being built on my first trip to Fort Worth. Watching workers bend metal on the mile-long production line, and getting to sit in a (stationary, alas) cockpit were highlights.

Mark Thompson in cockpit

Checking out the floor mats at Air Force Plant No. 4 in 1979. Photo courtesy of Mark Thompson.

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The U.S. Air Force placed its final order for F-16s in 1999, 14 years after I left the Star-Telegram. It took delivery of its last one, No. 2,231, in 2005. Even the Navy bought some, as fake enemy planes, for their Top Gun war games. The U.S. Air Force is still flying the aircraft in Afghanistan.

 

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Foreign buyers have kept production going in Fort Worth, at a reduced scale, ever since. But such sales had been critical to lowering the plane’s cost from the start. And when it came to selling the F-16 overseas, my math was simple: more jets = more jobs. More jobs = more readers for the Star-Telegram. Think of it as the economic circle of life.

And those foreign sales grew increasingly important.  A 1989 study by a General Dynamics F-16 salesman said 87% of the plane’s overseas sales involved business deals of some kind with the nations buying the jet. GD peddled the plane around the world. In addition to the original four European Participating Governments—Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Norway—I can remember feverish efforts by General Dynamics to sell the jet to Australia, Canada, Pakistan, Turkey and Venezuela.

Sadly, for us defense scribes of a certain age, the last Fort Worth-built F-16—built for the Iraqis, of all the world’s air forces—is slated to roll off that assembly line in September, making room for increased production of the F-35. I felt like a jilted boyfriend when I learned in March that production is shifting to South Carolina. It was a whole ‘nother level of heartbreak when it was announced last month that the whole kit and caboodle could be moving to India.

If New Delhi decides to buy up to 250 F-16s (worth up to $15 billion) production will begin at that small plant in Greenville, S.C., within a couple of years. Then it will shift to India, where F-16s for Bahrain, Colombia and Indonesia also might be built.

“This unprecedented F-16 production partnership between the world's largest defense contractor and India's premier industrial house provides India the opportunity to produce, operate and export F-16 Block 70 aircraft, the newest and most advanced version of the world's most successful, combat-proven multi-role fighter.” Lockheed announced June 19 at the Paris Air Show.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The F-16 is part of our national patrimony.

Lockheed’s partner would be Tata Advanced Systems, whose parent company now owns legendary British car makes Jaguar and Land Rover (although they continue to be built in England). India says it needs a new fighter to replace its aging MiG-21s and MiG-27s. Sweden’s JAS 39 Gripen E fighter is the F-16’s key rival for the sale.

Lockheed has told India a deal for the F-16 would mean thousands of jobs in that county. Those hired would include “entry level engineers, designers, supply chain managers, software engineers, hardware engineers, supply chain integrators, business people - the whole spectrum,” Lockheed officials told an Indian reporter.

Just as important, Lockheed has told India that the F-16 will keep flying for another 30 to 40 years. The company has said it doesn’t think the Trump administration will oppose the deal, given that it’s simply making room to build the more sophisticated F-35.

“The deal with India is unique in that it transfers manufacturing to India rather than just license production as in previous deals,” reported Second Line of Defense, a website operated by longtime U.S. defense analysts. “India will take over the production of F-16s and be the principal supplier of parts, equipment and support not just for their own fleet, but potentially, for most if not all of the installed base and new customers of F-16s worldwide subject to a U.S. veto.”

It wasn’t supposed to end this way. The F-16 is part of our national patrimony. I never could have imagined exporting all production of the F-16 overseas when I got that long-awaited call from the Air Force. It came three long years after climbing into that F-16 cockpit in Texas. The service invited me down to MacDill Air Force Base in 1982 for a ride in one of the F-16’s rare two-seaters, largely used for training. The two-day visit to Tampa consisted of a fitting for an anti-G suit, rudimentary life-saving tips (“Do not touch that D-ring!”) and simple courtesies (“If you think you’re going to get sick, do your pilot a favor and turn off your microphone”…I did, and I did).

Mark Thompson and Captain Bill Huddle 1982

Captain Bill Huddle (left) and me shortly before that 1982 takeoff. Photo courtesy of Mark Thompson.

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Sure there were butterflies. “If you get me back safe,” I remember telling Captain Bill Huddle as we taxied for takeoff, “there’s a full case of ice-cold Heineken in the trunk of my rental car.” We had a great flight out over the Gulf of Mexico. We did barrel rolls—if memory serves, he let me try it with the fly-by-wire stick—and some close-to-9G maneuvers. I felt a bit like a three-year old sitting in Dad’s lap, pretending to drive the car.

Following the flight, as we walked from the plane, four F-16s flying the “missing man” formation screamed overhead. That’s when a single jet leaves the other three flying level and climbs to the heavens. Huddle told me it was to honor an F-16 pilot killed a couple of weeks earlier during a night mission over the nearby Avon Park bombing range. It was a jarring reminder of the F-16’s real job.

That evening, I boarded a much more sedate airliner for my trip back to Washington. Within hours of my one-and-only F-16 flight, my neck could no longer easily support my head. During those 9G maneuvers, my head’s weight ballooned from about 11 to 100 pounds.

My neck felt as if it had been wrung by Zeus. And maybe it had.

Mark Thompson certificate

Photo courtesy of Mark Thompson.

I remember gobbling some aspirin and leaning my top-heavy noggin against the plane’s window frame to keep it from falling onto my chest. Despite the pain, that G-force grin wouldn’t leave my face. At that moment, I realized I had the best job in the world.

Photo of Mark Thompson

By: Mark Thompson, National Security Analyst

Mark Thompson writes for the Center for Defense Information at POGO.

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