The Best F-16 Ever? How Capable is the United Arab Emirates’ F-16E/F Desert Falcon

The F-16 Fighting Falcon entered service in the United States Air Force in 1978, and other than the F-15 Eagle which is two years older it remains the oldest fighter in the world that is still in production today. The Falcon has seen more airframes produced than any other fourth generation fighter, being the most widely used fighter in American service today with other leading operators including South Korea, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. While the large majority of countries operate the F-16C/D which entered service in the 1980s, and was by far the most produced iteration of the design, some more capable variants have also been developed including a program for an F-16E/F which was intended to serve in the U.S. Air Force as a successor. While this next generation of Falcons was never purchased by the Pentagon, largely to reduce costs and in anticipation of acquiring the fifth generation F-35, which after much delay joined the fleet from August 2016, the F-16E/F otherwise known as F-16 Block 60 was specially developed for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force under aa program known as Desert Falcon. 

The Desert Falcon’s development was pursued jointly by the U.S. and UAE with the latter contributing $3 billion to research and development without receiving a single fighter. This resembled a similar joint program pursued by Russia and India in the 2010s to develop a modified variant of the Su-57 fighter for Indian use, and much like India the UAE would have joint ownership of the technologies and gain revenues from future exports to third parties. Development began in the 1990s and the first Desert Falcon flew in December of 2003 17 months before the first aircraft was delivered in May of 2005. 80 airframes would be built including 55 single seat F-16Es and 25 twin seat F-16Fs. The ambitiously upgraded Falcons would gain no further clients, although the airframe was used as the basis to develop the F-21 to offer the Indian Air Force in 2019 which, although promising, never moved past a conceptual stage. 

The F-16E/F was one of the first fighters to integrate an AESA radar, following a small experimental unit of F-15s from 2000 and the Japanese-American F-2 which entered service from 2002. It was also one of the first to integrate any kind of phased array radar for air to air combat, with the USSR having first fielded them in 1981 and France in 2001 as PESA radars. These sensors provided overwhelming situational awareness advantages, paving the way for a new generation of long range weapons to be introduced, as well as providing new options for electronic warfare and being far less susceptible to jamming. Named the AN/APG-80, the radar was a close rival to the Japanese J/APG-2 which was used on the F-2 fighter. Another notable feature of the fighter was the integration of the F110-GE-132 General Electric turbofan which put out out 142kN of thrust - 13kN more than the F-16C’s F110-GE-129, which if flying clean ensures a much greater flight performance. The engine was the most powerful ever integrated onto a Western fourth generation fighter, with a comparable performance to the AL-41 powering the Russian Su-35. It helped compensate for the Desert Falcon’s greater weight due to the addition of more subsystems. 

The Desert Falcon’s cockpit used large flat panel displays and a wide heads up display with holographic video projection, typical of 21st century fighters that would follow it but revolutionary for its time. Other notable features of the F-16E/F included the Falcon Edge Integrated Electronic Warfare Suite which provided defensive countermeasures and greater situational awareness with active jamming,  passive electronic support and enhanced situational awareness of radio-frequency threats. The system included countermeasure dispensers, and could control fire optic decoys. The fighter was also one of the first in the Western world to use an  Internal FLIR Targeting System, the AN/AAQ-32, which included a  targeting pod derived from the AN/AAQ-28. Although the F-16 was designed as a lighter and cheaper counterpart to the F-15 Eagle during the Cold War, the F-16E/F Desert Falcon’s high sophistication allowed it to combine the low maintenance needs and operational costs inherent to the F-16 airframe with an actual advantage over heavier aircraft such as the Israeli F-15I or Saudi F-15C which, although using higher end high maintenance airframes, were far less sophisticated.

The F-16E/F was very likely the most capable fighter deployed by a Middle Eastern country when it entered service in 2005, and cost the UAE far less than fielding a fleet of heavyweights such as F-15s would have. Although the fighter is not considered state of the art today, as F-16s generally are seen as increasingly obsolete, it arguably still provides a much better capability than rivals for the contract, namely the French Rafale and pan-European Eurofighter, would have - a notable example being that they did not include AESA radars. Although the Desert Falcon’s avionics are increasingly behind the current standards, with even the F-16 Block 70/72 currently in production being far superior, its more advanced airframe and particularly its use of a more powerful engine gives the airframe more potential if modernised to a similar standard. The way the program was conducted provides important lessons regarding how joint development efforts can succeed despite very significant differences in the sophistication of the two defence sectors and industrial bases pursuing them, with similar joint programs for specialised variants of fifth generation fighters expected to begin to emerge in the coming years. 



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