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The F-16 Mid-Life Update Program; Leeuwarden, June 30, 2004

25 Years F-16 RNLAF, Part II; Text and Photograph's by Alex van Noye

The FWIT exercise is the training for the Dutch F-16 pilots when it comes to F-16 MLU training. This course is held at Leeuwarden Air Base every year. The Mid-Life Update program was a drastic modernization of the Dutch F-16 fleet. Now, several years after the update, all operational Dutch F-16s are on this standard.

The F-16 is in service within the Royal Netherlands Air Force since 1979. The expected life time of the purchased aircraft was about 20 years. It was therefore expected that the F-16 would be replaced after 1999 by its successor. The Minister of Defense Hans Houwelingen suggested in 1985 the idea to replace the F-16 with the Dassault Rafale between 1995 and 2000. The Dutch air force had the idea to upgrade the current F-16 fleet with the latest avionics. The idea of the air force was followed because the Rafale was not considered as a step forward in comparison with the F-16 which replaced the F-104 Starfighter at that time. The Royal Netherlands Air Force was convinced that the USAF would present a replacement for the F-16 from 2005. This new aircraft would fit better in the operational profile of the Air Force than the French Rafale according to the air force staff. The first ideas for a major electronics upgrade for the RNLAF F-16s were launched in 1985. The ideas were supported by the other 3 European Participating Air Forces (European F-16 users) in 1986. These other 3 F-16 users, were; Belgium, Denmark and Norway. The project became known as the F-16 Mid-Life Update (MLU) program. General Dynamics was not convinced of the idea of the F-16 update. The company proposed a new variant of the F-16 with bigger wings, better engines and new avionics. This proposal was rejected by the Royal Netherlands Air Force, because the costs would rise to unacceptable levels for a project like this. The philosophy of the Air Force was to keep the F-16 and update it with new avionics of the same weight to prevent the purchase of new engines which were too expensive. These engines have been used in the F-16C/D models. The idea was to save more money for the new fighter which would be available after 2005.

The development of the Mid-Life Update F-16 started in 1989 with a 2-year study on ways to upgrade the aircraft. On May 3, 1991, permission was given for the deve- lopment of the F-16 MLU. On June 15, 1991, General Dynamics received the assign-

ment to deliver the MLU kits which were needed to upgrade the F-16s. The MLU kits were made for the 4 European partners and the USAF. The development of the MLU kit lasted until 1997. The political and military situation in Europe was changed in 1989 by the disappearance of the Iron Curtain. This resulted in the retirement of the current F-16A/B fleet of the USAF in 2000. An update program was therefore unnecessary for the Americans. In November 1992, the USAF announced their withdrawing from the production phase of the MLU project. European renegotiations resulted on January 28, 1993 in a lower number of aircraft which would undergo the update. The 232 American F-16s were deleted from the program. Lockheed Martin received the contract for the supply of the MLU modification kits for the European air forces on August 17, 1993. Deliveries of the kits were started in October 1996 and were completed in 1999.

Several countries participated in the Mid-Life Update program. The Netherlands selected 136 F-16s for the update with the exception of the LTF and TVI aircraft. Belgium selected 90 F-16s for the MLU update. Norway and Denmark updated respectively 56 aircraft and 61 aircraft. Each EPAF country and the United States sent 1 F-16 to Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. These 5 aircraft were used as prototypes for the MLU upgrade. The Royal Netherlands Air Force sent the F-16B J-650 Block-15. The EPAF F-16s were designated as F-16A/B Block-15MLU after the Mid-Life Update. The F-16s of the EPAF countries were particularly described as F-16AM/BM. This designation is not recognized by the LMTAS. The Belgian company SABCA and the Dutch company Fokker had set up a joint venture company called CDR (Cooperative Delivery of Retro kits). This partnership was responsible for the delivery of the new cockpit kits. The companies Holland Signal Devices and Fokker Papendrecht were involved in the MLU program in the Netherlands. The conversion of each aircraft would take over 2,500 man hours to complete. In some cases it would take up to 3,000 hours. The update will last about 5 months for 1 aircraft.

The no 322 Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base was the first unit which switched to the F-16 MLU. The first F-16 MLU was officially handed over to the unit on June 11, 1998. The pilots of the no 322 Squadron started their conversion training in December 1997. The second unit which switched to the F-16AM/BM was no 315 Squadron at Twenthe Air Base in February 1999. The next units which switched to the MLU F-16, were; the no 323 Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base in September 1999 and the no 313 Squadron at Twenthe Air Base in April 2000. The last airbase that would switch was Volkel Air Base. The no 311 Squadron switched to the F-16 MLU in December 2000. Also the no 312 Squadron and the no 306 Squadron followed in the next year. The Mid-Life Update changed much in the way of working for the pilots. Originally, the F-16 was designed as a hunter in the CWI (Clear Weather Intercept) role. The main tasks of the F-16 were visual interceptions and ground attacks in daylight. Night flights were mainly performed as navigation training. However, after the Mid-Life Update and the introduction of Forward Looking Infrared and Night Vision Goggles around 1999 this became an important part of the training of pilots. All F-16 squadrons are currently active in the so-called swing role concept. This means each squadron is capable to perform at least 2 tasks, such as; interception, ground attack and reconnaissance. The F-16 MLU is with its new arsenal so versatile that the pilot is unable to keep up with all the tasks. Therefore, task specialization was introduced within the squadrons. This means a squadron can perform certain tasks in a better way than other squadrons. This concept was first introduced on a small scale at the Royal Netherlands Air Force during the detachment in Villafranca in Italy during operations over the former Yugoslavia.

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