MLU at ACMI by Gary Parsons
The first deployment of the year at RAF Waddington to use the BAe ACMI range comprised Belgian F-16s and French Mirage 2000s, between 22 and 31 March. For the Belgian contingent it was the first full-scale use of the MLU (Mid-Life Update) version of the Fighting Falcon, as deliveries to front-line units are currently in full flow. Although not new airframes, the MLU is an attempt to provide the F-16 with another ten to twenty years of service life beyond its original retirement plan at the turn of the millennium.
Twenty-one years ago the first European F-16 assembly line opened at the 'Societe Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aeronautiques' (SABCA), followed by the first flight in December 1978. The first aircraft was accepted by the Belgian Air Force in January 1979 and was the first locally built F-16 to be delivered to a European operator. The original Belgian order for was 116 aircraft, delivery of which was completed in May 1985. A follow-on batch of 44 Block 15 OCU aircraft was ordered in February 1983 and delivered between 1987 and 1991.
First contemplated in 1989 when it became apparent a replacement would not be available for a very long while, the MLU project aim was to provide a cost-effective update to the Falcon to enable it to compete effectively with the projected fifth-generation fighters of the early twenty-first century. Development commenced in 1991 when the five nations participating in the project (United States, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway) each placed a trials aircraft at the Lockheed-Martin plant at Fort Worth, Texas. For the Belgians, two-seater FB21 was chosen for this task, with SABCA undertaking supervision on the nation's behalf. In all, 343 aircraft are to be brought up to MLU standard, the majority being those of the four European nations which are mostly early airframes to Block 10 standard. Deliveries commenced in November 1996, slightly ahead of the original schedule, and will continue until May 2000. The MLU consists of a complete strip-down of the airframe and re-wiring, plus alteration of the air intake to allow for extra weapons points to carry such items as Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR). In all, work on each aircraft entails some 2,500 man-hours, the modification kits for the first five production aircraft containing almost 60,000 parts. All are accumulated at SABCA in Belgium and then shipped in 4x4x8 foot wooden containers to the various air force depots in Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway.
An avionics upgrade is a major part of the conversion, the Modular Mission Computer (MMC) enables the updated aircraft with an improved interface with the pilot and also reduces down time with line-replaceable modules (LRMs) being the plug-in variety. Replacing three previous computers, the MMC has other benefits in being some 55% less in weight and occupying less than 50% of the original space. The radar is also upgraded to a Westinghouse AN/APX-66(V2) which enables ten targets to be tracked simultaneously and also offers AMRAAM capability, evidence of which were the larger dummy missiles being carried by the aircraft at Waddington. Another item to see an upgrade is the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, giving a far greater range, and also gives one of the visual clues to a MLU aircraft in four blade antennas immediately ahead of the canopy.
Alterations in the cockpit include a new Head-Up Display (HUD), Multi-Function Displays (MFD) and Audio/Video Recorder (AVTR). All are intended to increase readability and improve pilot comfort, reducing the information load at times of stress and raise situational awareness. A new sidestick controller provides hands-on operation of many features previously placed elsewhere, further reducing workload on the pilot. All MLU aircraft will be Night Vision Goggle (NVG) capable and equipped with a Digital Terrain System for ground awareness; although not fully automatic terrain following, it will assist the pilot in low-level operations. An improved data modem will provide JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System) in the future, a feature recently installed to the RAF Tornado F3, enabling real-time battlefield scenarios to be downloaded from AWACS aircraft in theatre.
With the upgraded systems and weapons described, the F-16 now has a projected service life extension to at least 2010. Possible replacement types include Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen and JSF but with the exception of Norway no immediate decision is expected taking into account the investment recently undertaken to the F-16 fleets. The MLU program to date has been successful in terms of schedule, support and cost. "A successful development program," stated Lt. Col. Rene Demortier, the Belgian Air Force program manager for MLU.
Belgian F-16s present between 22 & 31 March included (click highlight for picture):