Like USAFE as a whole, the current European-based US F-16 force is a shadow of its former self, but still plays an important role within NATO and as part of US operations further afield. Paul Dunn examines the history of USAFE and the F-16.
When the F-16 began to enter USAF service in substantial numbers, it wasn’t long before aircraft found their way to Europe, to begin the process of replacing the F-4 Phantom II with USAFE’s Tactical Fighter Wings. The 1980s represented something of a peak in the Cold War, with tensions remaining high and US forces heavily committed to confronting the perceived Soviet menace across the German plains.
The F-16 had only been in service for a few months when, in late 1978, it was announced that the 50th Tactical Fighter Wing, based at Hahn AB, West Germany, would be the first in Europe to receive the new multi-role jet. Previously, aircraft from the Full Scale Development (FSD) batch had spent time on a European tour, so it was always expected that the new aircraft would enter service with USAFE, alongside the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF) who had collaborated in the aircraft’s development and subsequently ordered the F-16.
First aircraft for the 50th were a handful of very early jets loaned from Hill AFB, which were received in 1980. The first aircraft actually destined for the unit were Block 15 F-16A/Bs delivered in 1981. At the time the Block 15 jet was the most capable available, an important factor as the 50th TFW was expected to be on the front line in any European conflict and was a genuine multi-role unit, tasked with strike missions and also air defence of West Germany. The 50th also had a nuclear strike role using the B-43 and B-61 tactical nuclear weapons; the Block 15 was the first F-16 to be capable of this mission.
The 313rd TFS completed its conversion from the F-4E by mid-1982, becoming operational as the first USAFE F-16 squadron in June that year. The 10th TFS was next to receive jets, followed by the 496th TFS, with the entire 50th TFW becoming fully equipped by late 1983.
Next unit slated to trade in its F-4Es was the 401st TFW at Torrejon, Spain. Consisting of the 612nd, 613rd and 614th TFS, this unit also received Block 15 F-16A/Bs, and was similarly tasked with attack and air defence missions, albeit without the tactical nuclear role.
Interestingly, both the 50th and 401st TFWs did not fly the F-16A/B for long. Both units began re-equipping with the more capable F-16C by the late 1980s, by which time other USAFE units were also receiving the more advanced jet.
The 86th TFW at Ramstein AB, Germany, began receiving Block 25 F-16Cs in 1985, at a fairly slow rate; the following year it was decided to re-equip both the 512th and 526th TFSs with more capable Block 30 standard aircraft which were entering production by that stage. Both squadrons had received their full complement of aircraft by the end of 1987.
The final major unit to receive the F-16 was the 52nd TFW at Spangdahlem AFB. This wing was tasked with the specialised (and hazardous) SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) or ‘Wild Weasel’ role, and at the time was equipped with the F-4E and F-4G. The F-4G was the dedicated anti-radiation version of the Phantom, with equipment fitted to enable it to pinpoint radar emitters for targeting with its own AGM-45 Shrike or AGM-88 HARM missiles, or those carried by an accompanying F-4E.
The Block 30 F-16 was not at that time capable of performing the SEAD role alone as it lacked the equipment for locating enemy radar transmitters. Therefore, when the 52nd began receiving F-16s, they were to replace the F-4E and operate alongside the F-4G, at least until a version of the F-16 capable of targeting HARM for itself came along. This meant that the units of the 52nd TFW began operating the F-16C/D alongside the F-4G, with each squadron being assigned both types of airframe; the 52nd was the first unit to convert in this manner. Eventually three squadrons (23rd, 81st and 480th TFS) were so equipped by the end of the 1980s.
By the late 1980s, USAFE had four wings operating the F-16, with a total of eight F-16C squadrons, plus three combined F-16C/F-4G squadrons. There was one final unit that also briefly flew the F-16C that is worthy of mention. It was felt during the late 1970s, that USAFE and NATO in Europe required a dedicated aggressor squadron for DACT. This came in the form of the 527th Tactical Fighter Training and Aggressor Squadron (527th TFTAS, later 527th Aggressor Squadron), equipped with the F-5E and based at RAF Alconbury, UK. By the late 1980s, the F-5s were beginning to get long in the tooth and in need of replacement.
Accordingly, in 1988, the 527th AS received its first F-16C, and was relocated to RAF Bentwaters. Unlike US based aggressor units, the F-16s operated by the 527th AS never received specialised camouflage schemes, retaining the standard F-16 paint scheme, albeit with Soviet style code numbers on the forward fuselage. The tenure of the F-16 with the 527th AS was not long however; a little over a year after conversion, the squadron disbanded and its aircraft were redistributed to other units.
With USAFE’s F-16 force having reached full strength by the late 1980s, it came as some surprise when the Soviet threat disappeared, almost overnight, at the end of the decade. This would bring huge structural changes, but before any of that could happen, Iraq invaded Kuwait and a US led coalition launched Operation Desert Shield, to prevent further aggression towards Saudi Arabia in particular. USAFE F-16 units were deployed to the region, flying operations during Desert Storm from bases in the Persian Gulf and Turkey.
Desert Storm merely delayed the inevitable drawdown in US forces in Europe, and the F-16 fleet was to be rapidly reduced in the early 1990s. First to go was the 50th TFW which disbanded in late 1991, with Hahn being handed back to the German government in 1993. Hot on the heels of this disbandment came the closure of the 401st TFW, also in late 1991. This was in fact scheduled to happen around that time anyway, with the US and Spanish governments agreeing in 1988 to withdraw US fighter aircraft from Spanish soil by early 1991; war in the Gulf delayed that process, but only slightly.
Despite these withdrawals, some new aircraft were delivered. The newest versions of the F-16 were, at the time, the Block 40 and Block 50 standard jets. The Block 50s were the first to incorporate the SEAD mission. Deliveries to the 52nd TFW (later the 52nd FW) at Spangdahlem began in 1991, with retirement of the F-4G complete by 1994.
Also receiving new equipment was the 86th FW, slightly surprisingly as it was also scheduled for disbandment. In the event, only a few new LANTIRN equipped Block 40 aircraft were delivered before the 512th and 526th FS both moved south to Aviano in Italy, to join the newly established 31st FW, becoming the 510th and 555th FS respectively.
By this time, the remaining USAFE F-16 units were regularly deployed in support of operations over the former Yugoslavia. Aircraft from the 86th FW and later the 31st FW were heavily involved in operations in the Balkans in the period 1994-95 during Operations Deny Flight and Deliberate Force. Many missions were flown, and some aerial victories were scored. Aviano was also the main base for operations over Kosovo in 1999 during Operation Allied Force.
Today, the 31st FW has a primary mission of close air support and attack, using the same Block 40 F-16C/Ds that were allocated on its establishment. The 31st FW has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan regularly, in addition to supporting NATO exercises and commitments in Europe and beyond.
Since its establishment, the 31st FW has remained pretty much constant in its composition, whereas the 52nd FW has seen far more changes in its line up. During its more recent history, the wing has operated F-15s and A-10s alongside its F-16s, and the squadron designations have been changed several times. In 1994, there were two F-16 squadrons, the 23rd and 480th FS. When neighbouring Bitburg AB closed, the 22nd FS ‘numberplate’ was transferred to the 480th FS, which was disbanded.
The 22nd and 23rd FS made up the F-16 component of the 52nd for the next 15 years, seeing deployments in support of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom; although the primary mission of the 52nd FW is SEAD, its aircraft and crews are also able to perform conventional strike missions.
In view of their specialised role, aircraft assigned to the 22nd and 23rd were painted in a special Have Glass paint scheme. This scheme contains radar absorbent material, increasing the aircraft’s survivability in hostile airspace. The scheme is distinctive as it gives the aircraft a rough appearance and has a tendency to get very dirty, when compared to the standard F-16 colour scheme.
In 2010 it was announced that the 22nd and 23rd FS would disband and a single squadron would stand up in their place, designated the 480th FS. Rumours persist that Spangdahlem will close (the 480th is now the only flying unit based there), but for now the airfield remains open with F-16s in residence.
So, the USAFE F-16 force is much reduced, but still plays a important role in NATO regional and international planning. With the US looking more to the Pacific for its future operational planning, there may be further reductions in prospect in the future. It is a far cry from the days of four wings of F-16s, but the end of the Cold War rendered such numbers hugely excessive.
In the next part in our F-16 series, we will move away from US operations to take a look at the Hellenic Air Force, with the help of former display pilot Capt Manolis Karaholis.