The F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the U.S. Air Force’s workhorse fighter for more than forty years, and at one point, it looked like a carrier-capable version would do the same for the U.S. Navy.
More than 4,600 F-16s have rolled out off the assembly line since it first took to the sky in 1974, and even amid this era of stealthy supercomputers like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-16 force remains the backbone of America’s air dominance. With some 1,245 of the fighter still in operation under the Air Force’s banner, the F-16’s broad multi-role capabilities and sheer performance make it one of the world’s top fighter jets, despite being old enough to have seen the original “Star Wars” in theaters.
Today, F-16s fly for the United States, Israel, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, the Netherlands, Norway, Belgium, and more… but the most surprising place this highly capable 4th generation fighter may have ended up is on the deck of America’s supercarriers. Shortly after the F-16 won the Air Force’s new Air Combat Fighter (ACF) contract in 1975, then-Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger pushed the U.S. Navy to adopt the new fighter as well.
The F-16 had performed well in its pursuit of the Air Force contract, and if the Navy could also find use for the Fighting Falcon, Schlesinger reasoned, the Defense Department could procure the jet in higher numbers and streamline logistics for both branches.
This line of thinking, of course, would eventually lead to the acquisition nightmare that has been the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which was also intended to be a single fighter platform that could meet the disparate needs of the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps, as well as foreign buyers. The F-16, then, could have become a similar boondoggle (or maybe proven the concept sound) if the Vought Model 1600, or carrier-capable F-16, had ever made it into service.
In order for the YF-16 to find its destiny as the Air Force’s workhorse fighter, it first had to contend with stiff competition in the form of Northrop’s YF-17. The YF-17 was a lightweight prototype fighter first designed to serve as a lower-cost alternative to America’s most dominant air superiority fighter in the modern era, the F-15 Eagle. In the minds of military leaders, the large, powerful, and expensive F-15 brought more power to bear than was really necessary for many combat operations, and as such, a cheaper but still highly capable jet could complement America’s fleet of Eagles by assuming those lower stakes roles.
Ultimately, the YF-16 would outperform the Northrop’s YF-17 in testing oriented specifically toward the Air Force’s needs, but it wouldn’t be the last time these two highly-capable platforms would find themselves competing over a contract. In fact, as the Navy mulled over the idea of converting the F-16 for carrier use, it once again found stiff competition in the form of Northrop’s YF-17.
Neither General Dynamics (the maker of the F-16) nor Northrop (who made the YF-17) had ever built a carrier-fighter before. With a lucrative contract on the line, both firms sought out partners with carrier-aircraft experience. General Dynamics teamed up with Vought to convert their new F-16 Fighting Falcon into the Vought Model 1600, and Northrop paired off with McDonnell Douglas to improve upon their YF-17 design.
The new iterations of both of these fighters had to place a larger emphasis on the Navy’s primary needs at the time: Namely, long-range radar capabilities for intercept missions and multi-role capabilities to support the sort of air-to-ground combat operations America has come to leverage heavily throughout the past few decades.
It seems counterintuitive today, with the F-16 so expertly filling the role of an attack aircraft as well as a fighter, but the original concept behind the F-16 was to create a no-frills fighter built to do nothing but dominate the skies. Its designers at General Dynamics, internally known as the “Lightweight Fighter Mafia,” sought to keep the “gold-plating” they believed common in new fighter programs away from their new jet. “Gold-plating,” in their minds, including a number of things we now think of as practically standard in a 4th or 5th generation fighter, like fire control radar, electronic countermeasures for flying in highly contested airspace, radar-guided missiles, and–perhaps most importantly–ground attack capabilities.
By the time the F-16A began to emerge, it would have some of that gold-plating the “Lightweight Fighter Mafia” so disdained, like an AN/APG-66 radar and some intrinsic ground-attack capabilities. It still lacked radar-guided air-to-air weapons, forgoing them in favor of the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile. These additions made the F-16 a better candidate for the Navy’s needs than it would have been as originally imagined, but it still didn’t quite fit the bill.
In order to meet the needs of the Navy, the Vought 1600 was larger than the F-16A, stretching some three feet longer, with a 33-foot 3-inch wingspan that was a full two feet broader than the Air Force’s version of the fighter. The breadth of the wings grew, covering a total of 269 feet and giving the aircraft better stability at lower speeds. The fuselage was flattened a bit and made broader, and its canopy was designed to pivot forward, which was different from the F-16, but can now be found on the F-35.
In order to withstand carrier landings, heavier duty landing gear had to be affixed to the Vought 1600’s belly, alongside the standard carrier equipment like a landing hook. The fuselage itself was made stronger and in order to offer the engagement range the Navy needed, a pulse-doppler radar for beyond visual range targeting was also added.
All told, the structural changes needed to make the F-16 into the Vought 1600 added more than 3,000 pounds to the aircraft. Further changes were made to the fuselage and wings as subsequent iterations of the Vought 1600 came to fruition. The V-1602, for instance, had even more wing area at 399 square feet, and was given a heavier GE F101 engine.
Despite the changes made to the F-16 to meet the Navy’s needs, the combined General Dynamics/Vought effort would ultimately lose out to Northrop and McDonnell Douglas’ YF-17, which would later come to be known as the F/A-18 Hornet, and its own successor, the Block II Super Hornet.
The YF-17 may not have cut it for the Air Force, but the Navy saw promise in a scaled-up version of the fighter, thanks to its superior range, and likely, safety.
The Vought 1600’s low-lying intake located just above the nose-wheel was considered a real risk on the flight deck of a Navy carrier, as it could literally suck unsuspecting sailors straight into it. This wasn’t the first time Vought faced this sort of criticism, as the pilot-favorite Vought F-8 Crusader’s large, low intake had already earned it the nickname “the Gator,” because of its tenacity for gobbling up sailors.
Importantly, the F-16’s lightweight design and lack of radar-specific weapons made it poorly suited for all-weather operations like intercepting fighters or bombers en route to a carrier strike group.
“I pointed out that the F-16 carried only AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and they were clear-air-mass missiles. In clouds, a radar missile like the AIM-7 Sparrow III was required,” former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James L. Holloway explains in his book, “Aircraft Carriers at War: A Personal Retrospective of Korea, Vietnam, and the Soviet Confrontation.“
“This capability, with the necessary radar guidance system and heavier pylons, had been incorporated into the F-18 design, but the F-16 would not accommodate an all-weather missile system without extensive redesign and added weight.”
However, according to Holloway’s book, Defense Secretary James Schlesinger was still dead set on pushing the Vought 1600 onto the Navy. In order to settle the debate once and for all, Schlesinger invited Admiral Holloway to his office to discuss the Navy’s next fighter. Despite Schlesinger telling Holloway that his office was too small to bring more than two of his subordinates to the discussion, Holloway walked into the Secretary of Defense’s office to find more than a dozen people waiting for him. Schlesinger ambushed the admiral, keen to use his superior numbers to push the Vought 1600 onto the Navy.
Holloway stood firm, however, highlighting the concern of his engineers that the Vought 1600 was apt to bang its engine on the flight deck during carrier landings, which could cause damage to both the deck and the aircraft. When the men gathered in Schlesinger’s office argued that problems like that could be mitigated with better pilot technique, Holloway grew frustrated. Clearly, anyone peaching about improved pilot technique to offset a fighter’s design shortcomings had never attempted to land on the pitching deck of an aircraft carrier that was barely visible against a seemingly endless backdrop of stormy seas during nighttime operations.
The YF-17 also offered a second engine, which could mean the difference between getting a jet back to its carrier or having to dump it in the sea if anything went wrong with one of them.
Ultimately, it may have been the intended weapons for each platform that became the deciding factor. Because the F-16’s design wouldn’t accommodate an all-weather missile system without extensive modifications, the Vought 1600 may have been able to manage carrier operations, but still wouldn’t meet the exacting needs of the branch.
Of course, the F-16 would eventually gain the very capabilities it lacked at the time, both in the form of Sparrow missiles and eventually AMRAAMs. Had similar capabilities been a part of the Vought 1600’s pitch, we may not have seen the nearly four decades’ worth of service out of the Hornet and Super Hornet family that we have. Instead, the Navy would have been flying F-16s alongside F-14 Tomcats off of their flattops, and the Super Hornet would be another what-if fighter in the annals of military history.
Of course, the Vought 1600 wasn’t the only legendary American fighter that very nearly found its way into Uncle Sam’s carrier fleet. At one point, a significantly upgraded iteration of the F-117 Nighthawk nearly found its way into Naval service. And just a few years later, a similar effort almost placed F-22 Raptors on the Navy’s flight decks.
Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News here.