Weapon Systems

F-16's agility, versatility enable US Air Force's ACE concept


The Air Force's Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept emphasizes the speed, ruggedness and adaptability of its platforms.

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A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off after hot pit refueling in South Korea, January 17, 2024. [US Air Force]
A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon takes off after hot pit refueling in South Korea, January 17, 2024. [US Air Force]

The agility and versatility of the US Air Force's F-16 Fighting Falcons enable them to support the service's Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept.

Introduced as US Air Force doctrine in 2022, ACE focuses on spreading out power and operations from large, centralized bases to smaller, dispersed locations, providing the force with greater mobility and the ability to rapidly respond to a wide variety of threats.

Physical dispersal further complicates adversaries' abilities to target US Air Force and allied air power, enabling ACE to "increase survivability while generating combat power," according to the Air Force.

The ACE concept centers around multiple, small-scale ground operations in a forward battlefield area supported by multiple fighter and land attack aircraft.

Initially developed in the 1970s, the F-16 has evolved to meet the changing demands of aerial combat and the ACE concept.

It was designed as a lightweight, multirole fighter with a focus on air superiority as an alternative to increasingly heavy and cumbersome fighter aircraft. Its design philosophy emphasized maneuverability, adaptability and cost-effectiveness.

The F-16A entered service with the US Air Force in 1978. Since then, the F-16 has undergone numerous upgrades and variants, ensuring its relevance in the face of emerging threats.

There are currently more than 3,100 F-16s operating in 25 countries, according to its manufacturer. As of 2022, more than 4,550 F-16s had been produced for both the United States and its allies.

At one point, the US Air Force planned to end production of the F-16 by 2017, but ultimately opted to extend the life of the aircraft. Orders in 2019 by Bahrain, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Taiwan and Morocco spurred further aircraft production.

International users range from Chile to Singapore to Middle Eastern nations including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan. After Türkiye and Israel, Egypt operates the largest F-16 fleet in the region.

A match for ACE

The F-16's speed, adaptability and ubiquity are all traits that enable it to support the US Air Force's ACE concept.

With a full load of internal fuel, the F-16 can withstand up to nine G's -- nine times the force of gravity -- and travel at speed of up to 1,500 mph (Mach 2 at altitude), enabling it to quickly reach targets.

The aircraft is agile in air-to-air fighting, ground attack and electronic warfare, and is capable of flying more than 500 miles (805km) to deliver weapons with superior accuracy and defend against enemy aircraft, according to the Air Force.

All F-16s delivered since 1981 have "built-in structural and wiring provisions and systems architecture that permit the multi-role flexibility to perform precision strike, night attack and beyond-visual-range interception missions," it says.

The F-16 has nine hard points for mounting a wide variety of missiles, bombs, and pods to tackle a variety of missions, in addition to two other locations under the fuselage that are available for sensor or radar pods.

It also carries a 20mm M61A1 Vulcan cannon, which is mounted inside the fuselage to the left of the cockpit.

Its presence in various air forces also underscores its reliability and effectiveness in diverse operational environments.

The abundance of F-16 fighters worldwide ensures a strong pool of maintainers and supply parts -- a key tenant of the ACE concept.

The F-16 was designed to be relatively inexpensive and simple to maintain to provide a relatively low-cost, high-performance weapon system for the United States and allied nations.

"In designing the F-16, advanced aerospace science and proven reliable systems from other aircraft such as the F-15 and F-111 were selected," according to a US Air Force fact sheet. "These were combined to simplify the airplane and reduce its size, purchase price, maintenance costs and weight."

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