Having evaluated and rejected the Dassault Rafale and the Euro-fighter Typhoon, and having been informed that the existing order backlog alone would keep the UAE from obtaining the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter until after 2020, a solution to the UAE Air Force and Air Defence’s long-term requirement for a ‘next-generation fighter’ to replace the Mirage 2000 from 2018 seems as far away as ever.
In the meantime, the UAE is expanding its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16E/F Desert Falcons through the acquisition of 30 new Block 61 F-16E/F aircraft. The 79 surviving Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcons will be upgraded to a similar ‘Block 60+’ standard.
Lockheed Martin has thus far refused to comment on the Block 61 and Block 60+ configurations, but the new-build Block 61 is believed to be an evolutionary upgrade of the original Block 60, with diminishing manufacturing sources and obsolescence issues addressed, and some interoperability enhancements.
Block 61 aircraft are being purchased via a direct commercial sale, rather than using the more usual foreign military sale (FMS) process, so there was no requirement for the usual Defense Security Cooperation Agency notification of the aircraft sale to Congress, though Congress was notified of an associated FMS sale of training, logistics support and support equipment, weapons and other items to the UAE, on 23 January 2014.
Entering front-line service in 2005, the Block 60 F-16E/F has been called “the most advanced F-16 variant in the world”, and is described as being “a half-generation ahead of the F-16 C/D Block 50/52+ aircraft that form the backbone of the US Air Force.”
The aircraft is fitted with a Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 AESA (active electronically scanned antenna) radar, which made it the first F-16 variant to be fitted with an AESA array, and is still the only in-service F-16 version with an ‘e-scan’ radar.
The introduction of the Block 60 F-16 made the UAE AF&AD the first fighter force outside the USA to field this revolutionary radar technology.
The Block 60 also has provision for the conformal fuel tanks associated with later Block 50/52 aircraft, giving it a mission radius of 1,650km – a 40 per cent increase compared with non-CFT-equipped F-16 variants.
While the USA does not normally export the vital software source codes required to program the electronic warfare and radar systems on US-built fighters, in the case of the Block 60 F-16, the USA provided “object codes”, which allow new mission data to be added to the F-16E/F’s threat library autonomously.
This has allowed the UAE to refine and improve the Block 60 aircraft exponentially, and to keep it abreast of developing threats. Lockheed did integrate the UAE’s MBDA Al Hakim rocketboosted glide bomb on the F-16E/F, but the US State Department refused to allow integration of the MBDA Black Shaheen cruise missile (a derivative of the Storm Shadow used on UAE Mirage 2000s). This 51 was because the Black Shaheen was assumed to have a range of more than 300km, which is the current range limit for cruise missiles under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Instead, the USA is providing AGM-84 SLAM-ER missiles and the AGM-154C Joint Stand Off Weapon.