The Evolution of the F-16
All F-16s are not created equal. Fighting Falcons rolling out of the factory today are nothing like earlier versions. Some differences are visible—larger control surfaces; wider inlets; tinted canopies; squared landing lights; and various antennas, vents, bumps, and blisters. Most differences require more than the naked eye to see—structural beef-ups, improved engines, digitized electronics, vastly increased computing capacity, and software changes to accommodate new functions, sensors, and weapons.
The all-glass cockpit (no mechanical gauges) of the latest F-16s is the manifestation of many of these improvements. Three large five- by seven-inch color multifunction displays transmit information from a variety of sensors to the pilot in straightforward color graphics. The picture-in-picture capability of each display allows up to nine simultaneous display subsets at any given time. The cockpit features hands-on throttle and sidestick switch controls, night vision goggle-compatible lighting, a color moving map, and a large head-up display. The head-up display is supplemented by helmet-mounted cueing systems that allow pilots to target weapons by simply turning their heads.
The original F-16 was designed as a lightweight air-to-air day fighter. Air-to-ground missions immediately transformed the first production F-16s into multirole fighters. The F-16s that followed expanded and refined these roles with beyond-visual-range missiles, infrared sensors, precision-guided munitions, and a plethora of other capabilities. Current and planned versions of the F-16 build on these refinements, enhancing capabilities even further.
But the fundamental strengths of the original design remain. At the heart of every Fighting Falcon is the lightweight fighter concept championed by John Boyd and the other members of what came to be known as the Lightweight Fighter Mafia in the Air Force and Department of Defense. This group favored simple and small fighter designs that could change direction and speed faster than their potential adversaries and were harder to detect, visually and electronically. The Lightweight Fighter Mafia advocated designs that were inexpensive to produce, operate, and maintain. They advocated using technology to increase effectiveness or reduce cost. They went so far as to question and thoroughly analyze the basic assumptions of how fighters were judged and compared.
February 19, 2014