The F-16 Fighting Falcon, introduced in 1978, remains the oldest fighter in the world still in production, second only to the F-15 Eagle. With numerous airframes produced, it is the most widely used fourth-generation fighter, serving not only the United States Air Force but also countries like South Korea, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. While most nations operate the F-16C/D variant, a more advanced version, the F-16E/F, was developed as a potential successor for the U.S. Air Force.
Although the Pentagon decided against purchasing this next-generation Falcon to reduce costs and with the expectation of acquiring the fifth-generation F-35, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force pursued a specially developed version known as the F-16E/F Desert Falcon.
F-16E Desert Falcon: A Joint Endeavor
The development of the Desert Falcon was a collaborative effort between the United States and the UAE. The UAE contributed $3 billion to the research and development of the aircraft, even though it did not receive any fighters in return. This joint program, reminiscent of Russia and India’s partnership in the 2010s to modify the Su-57 fighter for Indian use, allowed the UAE to jointly own the technologies and benefit from potential exports to third parties.
The project commenced in the 1990s, and the first Desert Falcon took flight in December 2003, followed by the delivery of the initial aircraft in May 2005. A total of 80 airframes were built, comprising 55 single-seat F-16Es and 25 twin-seat F-16Fs. Although the ambitiously upgraded Falcons failed to secure additional clients, they became the foundation for the development of the F-21, a proposed offering to the Indian Air Force in 2019, which, despite its promise, remained at the conceptual stage.
Advanced Capabilities of the F-16E/F Desert Falcon
The F-16E/F was at the forefront of fighter technology, integrating an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. This technology previously experimented with on a small unit of F-15s in 2000 and implemented on the Japanese-American F-2 in 2002, provided the Desert Falcon with unparalleled situational awareness.
Additionally, the F-16E/F was among the first aircraft to incorporate phased array radar for air-to-air combat, a technology initially introduced by the USSR in 1981 and later by France in 2001.
The AN/APG-80 radar, installed on the F-16E/F, rivaled the Japanese J/APG-2 radar used on the F-2 fighter. These advanced sensors facilitated the introduction of long-range weapons and enhanced options for electronic warfare, significantly reducing vulnerability to jamming. The integration of the General Electric F110-GE-132 turbofan engine, producing 142kN of thrust, further improved the Desert Falcon’s performance, compensating for the increased weight resulting from additional subsystems.
Innovative Features and Superiority
The cockpit of the F-16E/F featured large flat panel displays and a wide heads-up display with holographic video projection, setting the stage for the technological advancements seen in 21st-century fighters. The Falcon Edge Integrated Electronic Warfare Suite equipped the Desert Falcon with enhanced situational awareness through defensive countermeasures, active jamming, passive electronic support, and radio-frequency threat awareness. The system included countermeasure dispensers and fire optic decoy control.
Furthermore, the F-16E/F was one of the first Western fighters to incorporate an Internal Forward-Looking Infrared (FLIR) Targeting System, known as the AN/AAQ-32, which featured a targeting pod derived from the AN/AAQ-28. While the F-16 was originally designed as a lighter and more affordable counterpart to the F-15 Eagle during the Cold War, the Desert Falcon’s sophistication allowed it to combine the low maintenance requirements and operational costs inherent to the F-16 airframe with a significant advantage over heavier aircraft such as the Israeli F-15I or Saudi F-15C.
Despite the growing obsolescence of F-16s, the F-16E/F remained a highly capable fighter upon its introduction in 2005, offering the UAE a cost-effective alternative to fielding a fleet of heavyweight fighters like the F-15.
Modernization and Lessons Learned
Although the Desert Falcon’s avionics may no longer meet current standards, with more advanced variants like the F-16 Block 70/72 surpassing its capabilities, its advanced airframe and powerful engine lay the foundation for potential modernization efforts. The program’s success highlights the importance of joint development initiatives, even in cases where defense sectors and industrial bases differ significantly in sophistication. Similar joint programs for specialized variants of fifth-generation fighters are expected to emerge in the coming years.
In conclusion, the F-16E/F Desert Falcon, developed exclusively for the UAE Air Force, showcased impressive advancements in fighter technology. Despite not being considered state-of-the-art today, the Desert Falcon offered superior capabilities compared to competing aircraft like the French Rafale and the pan-European Eurofighter. Notably, the absence of AESA radars in the competing platforms further reinforced the Desert Falcon’s advantage. While the F-16E/F’s avionics may now lag behind modern standards, its potential for modernization to a comparable level cannot be overlooked. The UAE’s pursuit of this advanced fighter demonstrates the nation’s commitment to maintaining a formidable air defense capability.