New lease of life for jets from the 'Boneyard'

MOTHBALLED in the Arizona desert for years, their airframes none the worse for wear and packing a much bigger punch, 24 former United States Air National Guard F-16 jet fighters will soon begin a new lease of life at the forefront of Indonesia's air defences.

The journey from the so-called "Boneyard" at Tucson, Arizona's Davis-Monthan airbase, is being broken at Hill airbase in neighbouring Utah, where the so-called "Flying Falcon" multi-role warplane first began operations with the US Air Force in 1980.

There, technicians are outfitting the fighters with new engines and state-of-the-art avionics as part of a US$700 million (S$895 million) refurbishment, which is being paid for by the Indonesian government as a condition for the free delivery of the airframes.

Although the age and origins of each individual jet are not clear, they mostly come from the 15 National Guard F-16 C/D-equipped squadrons, which were either disbanded or converted to other types of aircraft between 2007 and 2010.

Another 18 squadrons, including three in Arizona and two in Wisconsin, still make the National Guard the largest operator of the F-16 in the US and worldwide, often backing up regular air force units on operations overseas.

The 24 aircraft will join 10 F-16 A/Bs, which entered service in the Indonesian Air Force in the late 1980s. Not only do the latter have limited capabilities, but many were grounded by the arms embargo slapped on Jakarta after the 1999 bloodshed in East Timor.

President Suharto's administration signed a contract with General Dynamics-Lockheed Martin in 1996 for an additional nine F-16s, which would have brought the air force's East Java-based 3rd Squadron up to full Nato strength.

The plan was eventually to acquire 60 of the aircraft; but in June 1997, Suharto abruptly cancelled the entire order in a fit of anger over repeated US government accusations of human rights abuses in East Timor and elsewhere.

Two months later, Indonesia announced its intention to buy 12 Russian-built Sukhoi 27/30K fighters, an order that eventually took more than a decade to fulfil due to the crippling after-effects of the 1997-1998 financial crisis.

The air force now has 16 of the twin-engine, Makassar-based Sukhois. While they have a shorter engine life than the F-16 and are more costly to maintain, they comply with a new dictate to reduce Indonesia's reliance on a single-source arms supplier.

The F-16s are being upgraded from Block 32 to an improved Block 50/52 variant, with advanced navigation and targeting pods that will allow the air force to perform outside its daylight dogfighter capability for the first time. Deliveries begin this year.

They will also have a wider variety of weapons, including Raytheon's AGM-65K2 air-to-ground missiles, designed to attack armour, air defences and maritime targets using an electro-optical television guidance system.

Back at the Davis-Monthan Boneyard, many of the older F-16 models left behind will soon be converted into remote-controlled target drones, the same fate as a generation of F4 Phantoms which had their heyday during the Vietnam War.

They are among 4,400 aircraft and 7,000 engines - originally valued at more than US$33 billion - spread out across 11 sq km of desert floor that has been cleared of its usual patchy cover of cactus and spiny scrub.

Arizona's low humidity, hard alkaline soil and high altitude allow the planes to be naturally preserved. Their cockpits and other open spaces are sealed in a two-layer, spray-on plastic coating that keeps the interior within 15 degrees of the ambient air temperature.

Conceived after World War II and growing rapidly during the 1950s and 1960s when the US Air Force was moving from first- to third-generation jets, the Boneyard had amassed more than 6,000 aircraft by the end of the Vietnam War.

Since then, it has evolved from storing, preserving and disposing of old aircraft, to reclaiming parts, restoring planes and functioning as a maintenance depot in support of overflow needs at US-wide air logistics centres.

Apart from sales to foreign military partners, the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) disposes of 300 to 400 aircraft a year - slightly more than it receives and preserves - and ships out as many as 18,000 spare parts.

Indonesians may feel they are getting hand-me-downs, but that is not the case. Some Boneyard planes are returned to service in the US to fill special needs. Last year, even factory-fresh C-27 cargo planes were sent there because of defence cutbacks.

Most of the aircraft currently going to five different nations under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) programme include F-16s, P-3 maritime patrol planes, C-130 transports and T-37 trainers.

The most dramatic use of the Boneyard was in reducing the size of the Strategic Air Command's B-52 fleet to conform with the Salt treaties. A giant guillotine chopped up 365 of the bombers, their parts left in neat piles to allow Soviet satellites to verify their destruction.

For every dollar the US federal government spends on maintaining the sprawling facility - the biggest of its kind in the world - it saves or produces at least US$10 from harvesting parts and selling off inventory.

Because it is adjacent to an active airbase, the only access is via a thrice-daily bus tour. Even then, tourists are not allowed off the vehicle as it slowly passes row after row of everything from surviving B-52s to B-1 bombers and F-15 fighters.

How many years Indonesia's two new squadrons of F-16s will remain in service is anyone's guess, but it could well be into the mid-2020s and, with regular upgrades, perhaps even beyond.

It will not be as long as the eight-engine B-52, which entered service in the US Air Force in 1955. More than 80 are still flying and - from what our tour guide was telling us - they could be with the new Air Force Global Strike Command until 2040.

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