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Jan. 3, 2011—The Air Force and Air National Guard will almost certainly see investment dollars directed into bolstering their legacy F-16 fighters in the upcoming Fiscal 2012 budget.

However, the extent of those improvements to extend the service life of F-16 Block 30s and increase capability in newer generation F-16s will be closely tied to the health of the F-35 strike fighter program, said ANG Director Lt. Gen. Bud Wyatt in a December interview.

Wyatt said the Pentagon's sweeping F-35 review is gauging that level of health, which Defense Department acquisition boss Ash Carter will then use to make decisions on the course of the F-35 program going forward. Those decisions will be reflected in the Fiscal 2012 budget.

The ultimate number of F-16s that USAF will include in this work will depend on the conclusions that Carter draws from the F-35 review, said Wyatt.

The need to address the F-16 fleet isn't a new development, but it still needs addressing.

"About two to three years ago, mainly the [Air Guard] was saying, ‘Hey, we have a looming fighter bathtub and gap between when the F-35 comes in and the F-16s begin to age out,'" said Wyatt. Making matters worse, the F-35 program earlier this year experienced a schedule slip of 13 months to 15 months.

The bulk of the Guard’s F-16 Block 30 fleet is currently scheduled to exit the inventory by 2018, said Wyatt. Based on current estimates, he said that is at least four years before the Guard anticipates delivery of its first F-35s (for background, see Murky Waters for Air Guard from the Daily Report archives).

However, there are indications that Carter, will have more unwelcome news about the F-35 program's schedule, when the Fiscal 2012 budget is unveiled, according to Wyatt.

"We think there will be some sort of announcement pretty soon, that there will be a further delay in the ramp up to [F-35] full production," said Wyatt. He continued, "So the issue we first brought up now has become more apparent just because of fact-of-life issues."

The Air Force has recognized the situation and is working with the Air Guard to bridge the time until F-35s arrive in sufficient numbers, he said.

"There are several ways we can do that," said Wyatt, noting that some F-16s, such as Block 30 airframes, would receive structural reinforcements in order to "buy us a year or two of extra life in those aircraft."

Wyatt said planners need to remember that the Guard’s F-16 Block 30 units, primarily responsible for the air sovereignty alert mission at home, also participate in air expeditionary force rotations—with one exception--and are factored in operations planning for contingencies.

"We can’t just discount the [Air Guard] fleet. They do ASA, AEF, and they are written into plans," he said.

In addition to addressing the Block 30s, there would also be a need to invest in upgraded radar and avionics for some F-16 Block 40s and Block 50s, some of which the Guard flies, but most of which reside in the active duty inventory, said Wyatt.

His comments echoed those made in November by Lt. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the Air Staff’s head of operations, plans, and requirements (see Targeted F-16 Upgrades).