BODØ AIR STATION, NORWAY – As the Norwegian air force prepares to bring its first three F-35 joint strike fighters to Norwegian soil, the government is taking a simple approach to disposing of its aging F-16 fleet.
Rather than trying to deal with the complicated politics of reselling them or paying the cost of maintaining the older fighters as a reserve, the Ministry of Defense plans to scrap its collection fifty-plus Fighting Falcons, officials said during a visit here January 19.
Defense News visited Norway this month as part of a group organized by the Atlantic Council and funded by the Norwegian government. All participants accepted travel and accommodations during the tour.
The government plans to shut down the 56-plane fleet at the end of 2021, replacing it with a slightly smaller but more capable fleet of 52 F-35A conventional-takeoff-and-landing variants. Norway will take possession of six F-35s in 2017, with three going to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, which is the US center for training international partners on the Lockheed Martin-designed plane (Norway already has four F-35s at Luke).
Three others are expected to arrive in Norway in early November. From 2018 onward, planes will be delivered directly to Norway, with six new planes arriving each year. Norway plans for the planes to be declared operational in 2019.
The F-16s will still be operated through the end of 2021, although the number of flight hours will drop as the newer jets arrive. Currently the F-16 fleet logs around 7,000 hours per year; that will drop to around 3,000 by 2021, officials here said. Pilots over the age of 40 have been barred from re-training on the F-35, in order to make sure the F-16 has a dedicated pilot core until it is fully retired.
There are a number of factors at work here that make a resale of the old planes unlikely. The first is the age of this particular fleet -- Norway’s fleet is among the oldest of the F-16 groups in the world, with an average plane having over 10,000 hours of flight time.
Another is the political restrictions on re-selling US defense weapons. As one official put it, regulations make it easier to "turn them into nails" then try to resell the jets.
Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, says the age of the planes means they would likely be useful only as training aircraft or for spare parts. More broadly, he said the market for used F-16s hasn’t been very strong, despite some potential good fits around the world.
"One issue has been that many F-16 users have been waiting longer than expected for F-35s, so the supply of used F-16s has been constrained. But even then US F-16s that have been available weren’t purchased in significant numbers," he wrote in an email. "One problem is that there are relatively few countries that are wealthy enough to operate F-16s but not wealthy enough to buy them new. But even there, I’m surprised that more countries in Eastern Europe haven’t opted for used F-16s."
The planes won’t be the only thing that is scrapped. The military facilities at Bodø, which have housed F-16s since they came into service, will no longer be home to fighter jets. The majority of the F-35 fleet will instead be hosted at Ørland Main Air Station, with a few kept at the more northern Evenes air base to protect the P-8 maritime surveillance fleet.
Bodø has a long history as a military facility, having served as a hub for both the U-2 and SR-71 spy planes operated by the US during the Cold War. (Gary Powers, the U-2 pilot who was famously shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960, was en route to Bodø when he was captured.) It has also served as the hub of training for the Norwegian F-16 pilot corps.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.