F-16 production could go beyond 2010

FORT WORTH, Texas, 26 July 2005. Greece's plans to buy more Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets may be an indication that production of the venerable aircraft could last for quite a few years to come.

Jul 26th, 2005

FORT WORTH, Texas, 26 July 2005. Greece's plans to buy more Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets may be an indication that production of the venerable aircraft could last for quite a few years to come.

Lockheed officials say they're still not expecting a big surge in new orders beyond prospects already widely discussed, namely India and Pakistan.

"We would still say another 100 to 200 airplanes is a reasonable" number of potential orders, said Joe Stout, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth.

But those numbers would extend the F-16 production line at Lockheed's Fort Worth plant only to about 2010. Aerospace analysts are betting production will last a few years longer.

"We anticipate Lockheed will be building F-16s for another 10 years at least," said Ray Jaworoski, an aerospace analyst with Forecast International in Newtown, Conn.

The F-16's future is inextricably linked to that of Lockheed's next-generation warplane, the F-35 joint strike fighter. If the F-35 program runs into further delays or its price tag rises, some nations could decide that buying F-16s is a more economical way to meet their air defense requirements.

The latest, heavily upgraded versions of the 30-year-old F-16 design are much cheaper than the Eurofighter and most other competitors, said Richard Aboulafia, analyst with the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va.

The U.S. Air Force also could buy more F-16s, although it officially says it has no plans to do so.

Influential U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, raised that possibility in a published report Friday. Quoted by Inside the Air Force, a defense trade publication, the California Republican said he fears that the Air Force could face a shortage of front-line fighter planes because of aging aircraft and the high cost of new planes.

"That great depth that we've always enjoyed and has allowed us to employ operations in Iraq and Afghanistan today -- that depth is disappearing and we don't obviously have a good answer for it," Hunter said. He suggested bridging the gap by continuing production of Boeing's F-15E or the F-16.

Lockheed will build between 60 and 70 F-16s this year, but production will decline after that. Employment on the F-16 line, which was more than 5,500 two years ago, is near 4,000.

Pakistan has said it wants to buy 75 F-16s, but the number is subject to negotiations between the U.S. and Pakistani governments.

Greece's decision last week to buy 30 F-16s, with an option for 10 more, represents the second major blow this year to one of Lockheed's principal competitors, the Eurofighter Typhoon.

In April, officials in Singapore dropped the Eurofighter from the short list of airplanes they are considering to augment that nation's air force. The F-16 had been dropped earlier.

Singapore has narrowed its list to a version of the F-15 and France's Dassault Rafale.

Defense analysts say there are no other likely export prospects for the Eurofighter, a joint project of the aerospace industries of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. Outside a core group of countries, only Austria has agreed to buy 18 of the airplanes.

In addition to the F-16, India is reportedly considering Boeing's F/A-18 E/F and the Rafale.

Aboulafia says he has little doubt that more F-16 customers will materialize.

"A lot depends on the F-35 availability and price," Aboulafia said. He expects Lockheed "will be building F-16s in 2012 for somebody."

Copyright 2005, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

More in Home