Despite the introduction into service of an increasing number of fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II fighters, the US Air Force has not stopped modernizing older types of fighters. Work on extending the service life of the F-16 multirole aircraft of the US Air Force is being carried out by the plant in Bydgoszcz, which won the contract battle with a competitor from Western Europe.
The F-16 remains the most numerous type of fighter of the US Air Force. From the beginning, the services were used very extensively, and most of their flying hours were flown during the many years of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their average age is about 30 years, and among the machines still in operation there are older fighters, such as the F-16C Block 30, which are in no way comparable to the latest F-16 Block 70.
The F-16 will remain in service for many years
The F-16s were produced with a planned service life of 8,000 hours and several examples are already approaching that limit. However, the growing risk of conflict with Russia or China and budget constraints that prevent the possibility of purchasing more F-35s force the Americans to keep the F-16 in service for many years to come. Therefore, in 2018, the Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) was launched. Its primary purpose is to replace worn-out airframe parts and strengthen its structure, increasing the aircraft’s service life to 12,000 hours.
As part of the SLEP program, frames and stringers will be replaced, wings and wing-to-fuselage connections will be modified, completely new connections to selected airframe elements will be installed, and the upper fuselage will be replaced. The process of renewing one copy takes 9 months and costs 2.4 million US dollars. Refits can be carried out at different plants, and packages of parts needed to perform the work are sent in ready-made kits. The parts are produced by small and medium-sized companies that cooperate with the main aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
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Although the SLEP program is strictly about building the airframe itself, other work is also being carried out to increase the combat capabilities of older F-16s. First, the Operational Flight Program M7.2+ was installed on the on-board computers, allowing the integration of AESA AN/APG-83 SABR radars, AGM-158B JASSM-ER missiles and the latest version of the AESA AN/APG-83 SABR missiles. AIM-120D AMRAAM air-to-air missile with the aircraft. In addition, a new automatic ground collision warning system is being installed. The ALQ-131 and ALQ-213 electronic warfare management system, as well as the flare thrower and PIDS+ dipole, are also being upgraded. The changes introduced are intended to keep the F-16 in service until at least 2048.
Success of military aviation business
Wojskowe Zakłady Lotnicze No. 2 in Bydgoszcz won the first order to implement the SLEP modernization of the US Air Force’s F-16 aircraft in 2022. Work on the first aircraft began on November 22 last year. It was a huge success for the Bydgoszcz plant, which in the battle for the contract defeated the Belgian company SABCA, which for decades had been responsible for various repair work for American F-16s in Europe, and was also involved in licensing the production of F-16s. 16 years ago.
The contract, with a maximum value of US$365 million, is divided into two five-year phases. The first five-year phase is currently being implemented. After its completion, and depending on the results and additional demand, the contract may be extended for another five years until 2032. Currently, the program is being implemented as scheduled.
So far, it appears that only F-16s belonging to US units permanently stationed in Europe will be upgraded in Bydgoszcz. These are the 31st Fighter Wing from Aviano Base in Italy and the 52nd Fighter Wing from Spangdahlem Base in Germany. The 31st Wing has F-16 Block 40 fighters, while the 52nd Wing has F-16 Block 50 fighters. However, according to the latest information, the US-based fighters will also undergo refits at WZL 2.
In the first half of November, a number of fighters from various US Air Force units arrived at the Aviano base. Their further flight plan assumed moving to Spangdahlem and finally to Bydgoszcz. These include fighters from the 180th and 20th Fighter Wings, as well as the US Air Force Weapons School. Everything indicates that in the future we can expect more aircraft to be repaired from abroad.
Moreover, WZL 2 can repair F-16s not only from the West, but also from the East. On November 14, during a meeting with reporters, Deputy Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition and Logistics William LaPlante announced that the F-16 fighters that will be transferred to Ukraine will be maintained in Europe. Moreover, he pointed to Poland as the country best prepared for this task. The Ukrainians will carry out the simplest maintenance work locally themselves, but the contract for more complex works may again fall to WZL 2. With the experience gained in refurbishing American and Polish machines as well, this seems to be the most rational choice.
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