Along with delegations from Australia, France, Germany, Indonesia, India, Singapore, Japan, Britain, the Philippines, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Netherlands, Malaysia, New Zealand, and the U.S., the South Korean Air Force, formally known as the Republic of Korea Air Force, has sent newly upgraded F-16U fighters to Australia for Exercise Pitch Black 2022.
According to a statement from the Australian Air Force, the live fly exercise aims to “enhance regional security through multinational interoperability and understanding,” emphasising that “activities like Exercise Pitch Black recognise Australia’s strong relationships and the high value we place on regional security and fostering closer ties throughout the Indo-Pacific region.”
The F-16s were sent with a new administration in Seoul’s efforts to deepen ties with Western Bloc countries and adopt a less neutral stance in the increasing dispute between China and the West. They were escorted by a KC-330 multirole tanker transport and about 130 military personnel.
The F-16U is the Korean version of the F-16V, a modernised F-16 with fifth generation level avionics that includes a new mission computer, completely new cockpit displays, and a new electronic warfare suite. The AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which offers interoperability with a range of new weapon classes, has mostly replaced the F-16’s outdated mechanically scanned array radar.
When South Korea first acquired F-16s in the 1980s, they were considered outmatched by the Soviet-supplied MiG-29A jets fielded by North Korea, which had been developed specifically with countering Falcons in mind, and could not boast a definite advantage over the north’s newly delivered MiG-23s. Stagnation in the modernisation of the North Korean fleet, with the Soviet collapse and subsequent imposition of UN sanctions cutting off access to new aircraft or upgrade packages, has allowed the F-16 to gradually gain an advantage over the north’s top fighter classes which has become overwhelming with the new F-16U upgrade package.
South Korea license produced over 100 F-16s domestically and is one of the largest foreign operators with eight squadrons and an estimated 162 fighters in service, making it the country’s second most widely used fighter class after the F-5E/F from the preceding third generation. Although older F-16s are expected to begin to be phased out of service in the late 2020s or early 2030s in favour of fifth generation KF-21 stealth fighters, newer F-16s are expected to remain in service into the 2040s which makes the F-16U upgrade package particularly critical to prevent squadrons from becoming obsolete.
The AN/APG-83 in particular provides a tremendous improvement to situational awareness and electronic warfare capabilities, which could be particularly valuable if encountering North Korea’s new generations of air defence systems which have increasingly shouldered the burden of protecting the country’s airspace as its fighter fleet has aged. With South Korean airfields left increasingly vulnerable to strikes by the north’s growing arsenal of rocket artillery systems and tactical ballistic missiles, the F-16’s low maintenance needs compared to other fighter classes such as the F-15, F-35 and KF-21 could make it particularly valuable in the case of an inter-Korean conflict.