Lockheed Martin is gearing up to build F-16 fighter jets at full speed as U.S. defense officials say production capacity is one of the holdups to getting the much-anticipated jets to Taiwan.
“We’re working our way through that initial portion of the ramp this year and then we’ll continue to increase that up to four-per-month deliveries by the end of 2025,” said OJ Sanchez, vice president of Lockheed’s F-16 and F-22 programs.
Lockheed expects to deliver between six and eight new F-16s this year to various customers. Then “each year there’ll be a subsequent step up” until the company reaches a 48-per-year cadence, Sanchez told Defense One last week on the sidelines of the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference. The company delivered the first of its new F-16 Block 70 fighter jets to Bahrain in March.
The Biden administration has reported a $19 billion backlog in foreign military sales, or FMS, to Taiwan and is searching for ways to speed up deliveries.
F-16s make up “a lot” of the backlog, Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante said Friday.
LaPlante said he had dispatched members of the Pentagon’s new Joint Production Accelerator Cell, or JPAC—created to oversee the expansion of weapon production—down to Greenville, South Carolina, where Lockheed’s F-16 plant is working to speed things up.
“What [is it] going to take to get the F-16 line down in South Carolina up to where it needs to be, which is about four a month? Keep in mind, the U.S. is not buying any F-16s and has not bought F-16s for I don’t know how long, so this is entirely for FMS,” LaPlante said at the Center for a New American Security.
U.S. lawmakers were already pushing to accelerate deliveries to Taiwan when Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng announced in May that his government no longer expected Lockheed to start delivering 66 F-16s this year. Chiu said the jets were now expected to start arriving in 2024, that his ministry has asked the U.S. to “make up the deficiency,” and that the delivery was still expected to wrap up by 2026.
While Taiwan waits for its new fighter jets, Lockheed is upgrading the island country’s current fleet of 139 F-16s. The company will finish the work in “the coming months, going into next year,” Sanchez said.
This “Viper” upgrade gives older jets some of the “best elements” from the new production jets, such as Northrop Grumman’s active electronically scanned array radar, he said.
“Each nation is a little different, but we’re able to get the new radar, some of the elements of the digital cockpit, some advanced weapons, so it brings it up another generation from where they were in the past. [It’s] obviously not the same structural upgrades that we’re doing with the life extension on the new production, but a lot of new capability packed into that and so Taiwan is one of the nations that were supporting in doing that,” Sanchez said.
Lockheed is also expanding F-16 infrastructure in Europe. The company announced in August it will open a European F-16 Training Center in Romania, which already has 17 F-16s and has bought another 32 used jets from Norway.
Romania “desperately” needs pilots trained to fly its new F-16s, Sanchez said, adding that Lockheed hopes to train other nations’ pilots there as well.
The training center “could be a good opportunity for a base to train Ukrainian pilots, should that come out of all those conversations,” he said.
Sanchez wouldn’t say when the European training center will open, but noted the Romanian F-16s are “not far from getting there, as we understand it. So soon, we hope to be establishing that framework there.”
The Pentagon announced in August it will begin training Ukrainian pilots on F-16s in the U.S. this October. Sanchez said Lockheed hasn’t been asked to help, but they’d be glad to support if needed.
“We see these as all additive, so we would want to be an additive source through the European flight training center to whatever the U.S. and the other partner nations provide,” he said.
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