This year marks the 40th anniversary of the first flight of the F-16 Fighting Falcon. In the first of a series of articles to appear on GAR in the coming weeks, Paul Dunn takes a look at the type’s service with the USAF’s Air Combat Command, and its predecessor, Tactical Air Command.
After kicking off our commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the F-16 first flight with a detailed history of the type’s development appearing in issue 22 of GAM, over the next few weeks GAR will publish a series of articles looking at the aircraft’s service career and current operators, including several exciting contributions from current and former pilots.
To begin with, though, we will turn our attention to the largest operator of the F-16, the USAF. F-16s serve in significant numbers with several major commands, including Air Combat Command (ACC), United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Air Education and Training Command (AETC) and Air Force Materiel Command.
In addition, the aircraft serves with the other two components of the ‘Total Force’ concept; the Air National Guard (ANG) and Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), together referred to as the Reserve Component. In particular, the aircraft forms the backbone of the ANG, with the Reserve Component operating the same standard of aircraft to the active duty USAF. However, in this first article, we will look at the F-16’s service with Air Combat Command, and its forerunner, Tactical Air Command.
The first operational F-16s were delivered to Tactical Air Command in the form of the 388th TFW (Tactical Fighter Wing) at Hill AFB, UT, with the unit achieving its Initial Operating Capability in 1980. The 388th was followed by the 56th Tactical Training Wing (TTW) at McDill AFB, FL and the 474th TFW at Nellis AFB, NV.
As production stepped up, F-16A/Bs were delivered to units throughout the US and also overseas in Europe and the Pacific region. Major operators within TAC included the 31st TFW at Homestead AFB, FL, the 347th TFW at Moody AFB, GA, and the 363rd TFW at Shaw AFB, SC. During the latter part of the 1980s, many of these units received the updated F-16C/D versions, and their earlier jets passed to the ANG.
The late 1980s probably represents the zenith of USAF F-16 operations, but the end of Cold War and subsequent reduction in US military forces would bring major changes, although many of these were somewhat delayed by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and subsequent operations to evict the invading Iraqi forces and liberate the country.
During Operation Desert Storm, USAF F-16 units formed the bulk of allied air power, and flew more missions than any other combat type. These were almost exclusively attack missions, and included pioneering work in performing close air support and forward air control in the aircraft.
With the end of hostilities, however, there was no escaping the fact that the world had changed, and the USAF had to change with it, in order to reflect the new world conditions. TAC merged with Strategic Air Command (SAC) to form Air Combat Command (ACC), with the latter inheriting much of the USAF’s F-16 fleet. Since that time, the F-16 fleet has been on a gradual, but steady, decline, with units disbanded and aircraft retired throughout the 1990s and beyond.
The 474th TFW had actually been disbanded prior to Desert Storm (summer 1989), and the 31st FW (the ‘Tactical’ being dropped with the formation of ACC) was to follow in 1992, in somewhat unusual circumstances. Hurricane Andrew struck Southern Florida in August of that year, causing severe damage to Homestead AFB. By the time the storm arrived, much of the base had been evacuated and its squadrons had flown to other F-16 bases. Given the damage to the base, it was initially expected to close completely, but in the end it was repaired and realigned to the reserves. The 31st FW was, however, disbanded and its squadrons passed to other wings.
In 1993, the 363rd FW at Shaw AFB was re-designated the 20th FW; shortly afterwards the 347th FW lost much of its strength, when three of its squadrons were disbanded, leaving only the 68th and 69th FS. The wing lost its F-16s entirely in 2001, when the last of these units gave up its aircraft.
If the general trend suggested a decline in the active duty F-16 force, that was not entirely the case; the retirement of the F-111 in 1996 brought F-16s to the 27th FW at Cannon AFB, NM. The 27th FW disbanded in 2007 and the base passed to AF Special Operations Command (AFSOC).
Currently, there are four wings assigned to ACC which fly the F-16. Of these, two are frontline combat wings, with the other two being responsible for test and advanced training duties.
First (numerically) of the combat wings is the 20th FW, based at Shaw AFB, SC. The wing is equipped with the Block 50 version of the F-16C/D and tasked with Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD), more popularly referred to as the ‘Wild Weasel’ mission. Its aircraft most often carry the AGM-88 HARM, along with the HARM Targetting System (HTS) pod, mounted on one of the intake pylons; the wing does also have a secondary strike role in addition to this. The 20th FW consists of three squadrons: the 55th FS, 77th FS and 79th FS.
The 388th FW at Hill AFB has flown the F-16 for over 30 years. It is made up of two squadrons (4th FS and 421st FS), both of which fly the Block 40 F-16C/D.
Of the other two ACC F-16 wings, the 53rd Wing is based at Eglin AFB, FL. It performs operational testing of equipment and weapons and also helps develop tactics and concepts. The wing consists of two squadrons which are geographically separated. The 85th Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES) is based at Eglin AFB, whereas the 422nd TES is located at Nellis AFB, NV; the 422nd TES operates the F-16 alongside examples of the F-15C/E, A-10, F-22 and, most recently, the F-35.
The final F-16 wing within ACC is the 57th Wing, based at Nellis AFB, NV. This wing consists of two main squadrons with slightly different roles. The 16th Weapons Squadron (WPS) is part of the USAF Weapons School, which teaches students in advanced weapons delivery and tactics. Graduates return to their units as weapons instructors.
The other F-16 squadron within the 57th Wing is the 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS), which supports Red Flag exercises by simulating enemy aircraft. The squadron uses tactics based on those of potentially hostile nations, and its aircraft are painted in a variety of colour schemes to differentiate them from friendly aircraft and also represent possible foes.
Also attached to the 57th Wing is possibly the best known operator of the F-16; the USAF Air Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds.
USAF F-16s will be upgraded in the next few years, in order that they stay relevant and capable in the arena of modern air warfare. This is particularly important given delays to the F-35 program, which will eventually replace the F-16.
In addition to ACC units, the F-16 also forms an important part of US forces based overseas, and in the next part of this series we will turn our attention to these units, with a look back at F-16 operations within USAFE.