Outrageous inflation in military spending isn’t a modern phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, though, we don’t hear as much about it.
But in the 1970s, it was getting headlines. The costs involved in developing weapons were zooming. And nowhere were these costs more publicized than with aircraft.
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the development of several key Air Force and Navy aircraft blossomed into inflationary nightmares. It started with the F-111, whose protracted development time and cost overruns became a national controversy in the ’60s and early ’70s.
An Australian F-111.
The Navy’s F-14 program (that’d be the plane Tom Cruise, Anthony Edwards and Val Kilmer flew in Top Gun) wasn’t as troubled – but each copy of the plane ran to well over $20 million 1972 dollars, which equals $111,000,000 today, giving a generation of American budget-watchers sticker shock.
An F-14 Tomcat. Not “TomKat”. Sheesh.
The Air Force’s F-15 was another expensive one, marginally cheaper than the F-14 for about the same mission.
An F-15 Eagle
The ballooning cost caused some military theorists to speculate we’d be better off buying more, cheaper aircraft; that in a potential Hot War, the huge number of relatively cheaper Soviet airframes would take horrible casualties against the technologically formidable US planes, but that at the end of the battle there’d be so many Soviets that the Americans would end up getting shot down any way. Better, the theorists said, to buy many, many of the relatively cheap ($3-4 million a pop in the mid-seventies) F-5, which was comparable with a Soviet Mig-21.
A Mig 21 of the Lithuanian Air Force. First fielded in the late 1950s, over 10,000 Mig 21s were built – the most of any jet fighter in history.
With this in mind, General Dynamics set about trying to split the difference; building as smaller, lighter, less-expensive fighter plane. This became the F-16 – called the “Falcon” by the Air Force, the “Viper” by many of its own pilots (and the “Lawn Dart” by F-15 pilots, after a few unfortunate crashes early in its development).
And the first F-16 flew forty years ago this month.
Weights and costs rose, inevitably, as well – but for the price the Air Force got a plane with a number of firsts: it was the first “relaxed-stability” fighter plane controlled by “fly by wire” technology. Stable planes – like an airliner – are designed to fly efficiently and comfortably in straight lines. They’re stable. Airline passengers like them that way. But airliners don’t have to pull 6G (six times the force of gravity) turns to evade incoming missiles, either (ideally). Fighter planes do, on occasion – and while stability makes flying in one direction easier, it makes it harder to crank the plane into a sudden turn. Unstable planes are, well, unstable; they’re prone to tipping over and rolling about at random, unless the pilot is in complete control – more complete than a human can possibly manage. The F-16 used a computer to automatically adjust the control surfaces, many times per second, to keep the plane artificially stable in forward flight, but use the plane’s inherent instability to help it maneuver very quickly. This technology also involved replacing the traditional mechanical control cables and connections with an electronic data bus, delivering electronic signals from the computer and, less frequently, the pilot, to the plane’s control surfaces (which had the added effect of getting rid of parts that, traditionally, are among a combat aircraft’s most vulnerable to damage). It made the F-16 the most nimble fighter jet of its era, and one of the most maneuverable of our era as well.
The view (backwards, obviously) from the bubble canopy of an F-16. At least one of this blog’s semi-regular commenters has spent a fair chunk of his career with this view from his office. I’m hoping he shows up for this thread…
There were other advances – a frameless bubble canopy giving an unimpeded view of the surroundings, a pilot seat that was reclined 30° to reduce the physical effects of the gravitational forces involved in violent maneuvering on the pilot, “Hands on Throttle and Stick” controls that put most of the plane’s key controls on the two controls that the pilot kept his hands on most of the time, as well as moving the “stick” (which controls roll and pitch) from between the pilot’s knees to the right side of the seat.
Cockpit of an F-16. I recognize the stick on the right, the ejector seat control in the bottom center, and the throttle on the left. Beyond that, I couldn’t close the canopy much less read anything.
Many of these features have been found on most fighter planes developed since then. Some – “fly by wire” – have even popped up on commercial passenger aircraft.
The F-16 was adopted by two dozen other countries, and produced in five (US, Belgium, the Netherlands, Turkey and South Korea). It flew in combat in both Gulf Wars and over Bosnia, and has also flown in combat for the Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Pakistani, Venezuelan and (in limited skirmishes against each other) Greek and Turkish air forces.
Norwegian F-16 dropping a stick of bombs
And above all, Israel has used the F-16, as its principle multi-role fighter plane. Eight of them (escorted by a flight of F-15s) bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981, to stall Hussein’s nuclear program. The raid highlighted both the flexibility of the F-16 (it was both an excellent fighter and a capable bomber) and the skill of Israel’s pilots (one pilot dropped his bomb through a hole in the reactor containment building that had been drilled by the previous plane’s bomb).
The F-16 has traditionally been scheduled to fly until 2025 – but delays in its putative replacement, the F-35, have likely stretched that a few years.