Poland About to Modernize Its F-16s? [COMMENTARY]

Image: Defence, Commonwealth of Australia
Image: Defence, Commonwealth of Australia

Polish F-16C/D Block 52+ Jastrząb MRCA are bound to receive an upgrade, major Krzysztof Płatek, spokesman for the Armament Inspectorate told us. What the scope of such an upgrade could be, and when can we expect it to happen?

The implementation of the task pertaining to the modernization of the F-16 jets would be aligned with the confidential planning documents that are valid at the MoD, said Krzysztof Płatek, spokesman for the Armament Inspectorate. This means that the upgrade has been included in the Technical Modernization Plan, but it is a part of the confidential part of the said document. The response does not specify the scope, or the timeline of the upgrade, due to the confidential nature of the document in question.

Procurement of two squadrons of the F-35A jets is not the only building block that would be used to create the future of the Polish Air Force’s tactical component. Up until recently, there was some information circulated, suggesting that 1-2 extra F-16C/D squadrons could be procured. An announcement was made in late 2019, as the Technical Modernization Plan was approved. For some time now, the opinionmakers were recalling the fact that the existing fleet of the Polish Vipers stationed in Krzesiny and Łask shall not be forgotten. The F-16s are the most valuable and the only fully combat-capable Polish MRCA. They are expected to remain in service for years to come.

Upgrade packages are already available today, which could be used to extend the lifecycles of the Polish Vipers, from 8 to 12 thousand flight hours (an upgrade as such has been made available within the F-16 SLEP programme). Expansion of the combat capability though should be the primary focus here. The latter is being pursued by numerous states that acquire the comprehensive F-16V upgrade (complete/partial). It envisages that the F-16s become compliant with the Block 70/72 standard.
The main elements of the upgrade include the integration of an AESA radar, improved avionics, better situational awareness, and a net-centric communications suite that allows for establishing of data exchange for instance with the F-35. Jastrząb aircraft modified in the manner described above could become a perfect wingman for the F-35, and have capabilities matching the ones of the brand new F-16s that Poland is willing to procure. Poland would probably procure brand-new Vipers - there are limited options available when it comes to the second-hand F-16 market.

The intention to upgrade the existing F-16 fleet is good news. It seems that all of the aircraft shall undergo the upgrades since the investment would be cost-effective here. Let us speculate when an upgrade programme as such could begin. The jets would be modernized in small batches, and the whole process would last 2 years at least. If the modernization would be tied to a usual MLU program, then the jets should undergo an upgrade as such 15 years after the commissioning. Considering the fact that Poland was receiving the F-16s between 2006 and 2008, the MLU should be scheduled to happen between 2021 and 2023. The deadline could be postponed though, and be aligned with the deliveries of the first F-35s. These are expected to happen between 2025 and 2026.

It shall be noted that the Polish F-16 fleet has already undergone a minor upgrade, including the upgrade of the software (M6.5), and integration of the JASSM/JASSM-ER missiles.