The Royal Norwegian Air Force has retired its last F-16 fourth generation fighters as its new 5th generation of F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters take over all combat aviation duties.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force has announced its F-16 fighter jets flew their last mission on 6 January before new F-35s take over as the nation’s main fighter platform. After retiring the 4th generation fighters, Norway became the first country to have an air force of all 5th generation fighters.
The replacement fighter model for the F-16 is the American F-35A, the only Western fifth-generation fighter in production, and the only one for export. Like the F-16, it was designed for mass production, with lower production and operating costs to compensate for the weakness of the heavier fighters.
The fifth generation fighters have been in service since December 2005, when the US Air Force launched its first fleet of F-22A Raptor heavy fighters. However, at that time, they were not yet produced on a large scale but had to wait until the mid-2010s.
Because the F-22 is much more expensive to operate than originally planned, production of this fighter model was cut by 75% and finally canceled in 2011, meaning that only 187 F-22 production, while the number of F-35s produced is up to 750, by the end of 2021. But not yet, it is expected that about 2,000 F-35s will be built.
Today, the F-35 is one of two 5th generation fighter models that are maintaining production and entering the air forces of many countries around the world, along with China’s J-20 model – almost similar to the US model F-22, but only for domestic use, not for export.
The 5th generation fighter is very different from the 4th generation “predecessors”, in many respects. The 3 main criteria here include: the ability to fly at supersonic speed and maintain that speed for a certain amount of time without using extra fuel tanks (Supercruise), the ability of “stealth” and high flexibility.
While the F-22 meets all of the above requirements, the F-35 model, although cheaper, does not have supersonic cruise capability and low flexibility. But F-35 has next-generation sensors, engines, data networks, etc., which make the F-35 superior to the F-22 in terms of network warfare capabilities.
However, replacing the F-16 with the F-35 has its costs, not only in terms of higher purchase costs but also significantly higher maintenance costs, and spare parts not as readily available. The F-35’s operating costs are significantly higher, meaning that the F-35’s per hour flight will cost much more than the F-16 and surpass even the 4th generation heavy twin-engine aircraft.
Norway currently owns an entire air force of the F-35, which relies entirely on a single aircraft model. This has great potential, because in fact, the F-35 has only achieved basic operational capabilities initially, and is expected to be ready by 2025.
The Pentagon currently continues to delay the approval of the F-35 model for large-scale production, because this aircraft model has many unresolved issues. It is these shortcomings of the F-35 that have sparked a wave of fierce criticism from US officials, including two former defense ministers.
Also due to the lack of combat readiness of the F-35, Norway will be forced to rely on other countries for air defense for a while. This is especially dangerous if the Norwegian F-35s are assigned the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) role.
However, when there will be a high level of combat readiness, the F-35 will become a much more solid force of the Royal Norwegian Air Force compared to the F-16. In addition, as the F-35 program will continue for many years, the F-35 fleet will be further upgraded to enhance its operational capabilities.
Norway has always been a preferred customer and partner in both the F-16 and F-35 development programs. They received the first F-16s in 1980, just two years after the US Air Force, and received the F-35s in 2015, the same year as the US Air Force.
Norway’s switch to owning an all-F-35 fleet is for a reason, firstly thanks to the above relationship with the US, and secondly, it owns a rather small fleet, so the number of F-35s is relatively small, only 35 needed to fill the existing fleet.
It is not clear which country in the world after Norway will have a fleet of all 5th generation fighters. This is considered an unrealistic scenario for the US, but it is entirely possible. For countries with small air forces such as Belgium, Switzerland and Finland, which are expected to replace all 4th generation aircraft with the F-35.