James Robinson: Bulgarian pilots may deliver first F-16

This is the most combat-proven aircraft in the world

Photo: Boyko Kichukov

One of the strengths of the F-16 is that it has 12,000 hours of lifespan and the fact that it does not need to leave Bulgaria for maintenance. So, it is going to be maintained in Bulgaria by Bulgarians. To that point, as we look for industrial participation opportunities, we will look for opportunities to expand the ability to help maintain other components on the F-16 for the F-16s here in the European operational theatre, James Robinson, executive at Lockheed Martin, says in an interview to Telegraf.

Mr Robinson, how many F-16 guard the airspace of NATO and in which countries?

There are over 700 F-16 flying in NATO. Our most recent customer was Slovakia, which also selected the F-16. Romania, Greece and Turkey in the region fly the F-16 and then, of course, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Portugal are all F-16 users. Lockheed Martin is very excited about the opportunity in Bulgaria, about adding the Bulgarian Air Force to that team.

The Council of Ministers has selected F-16 Block 70, which is a new modification. What can you tell us about it?

The nice part is that we are building this off of what is called the F-16V technology. We have upgraded existing F-16s to this new F-16V configuration and we have recently begun flying F-16V in Asia. Some of our customers are in the Asian market. That new technology includes the new radar, new mission computers, and new technology in the cockpit. The Automatic Ground-Collision Avoidance System, which is a very critical piece of technology as well. All that technology is going to go into the F-16 Block 70. We have taken all of the equipment that we used to build the F-16s in Fort Worth (in the state of Texas - editor's note), and we are moving that already to South Carolina. We have all of our international suppliers building the components that would go in the new F-16s for Bulgaria. We are very excited. We think that the process is going to come together very quickly and produce the most modern F-16 in the world for the Bulgarian Air Force.

You say that the plant is moving to South Carolina. How long will it take for the production process to start rolling?

The production process will start rolling in 2019. As you can imagine, it takes time to produce an aircraft. Delivery schedule is still part of the negotiations process so we cannot comment specifically, but we looked at the overall process and we are looking to accelerate manufacturing to move the production of F-16s for Bulgaria sooner than we originally expected. So we are excited about the opportunities and hopeful that we will begin to see F-16 coming together in South Carolina very soon.

You have other customers who have already ordered the F-16 Block 70. Does that mean that Bulgaria will have to wait a long time?

No, because of looking at increased production, we are able to “layer in” production of the Bulgarian jets very soon after we begin production of the Slovakian jets. Right now, Bulgaria will be the third customer for F-16 Block 70, including Bahrein and Slovakia. But there are also jets to be produced, probably more than a hundred F-16 Block 70s and 72s, for other customers around the world.

What is the point of starting a new line when you have something that has been proven in combat?

In my opinion, the F-16 is the most combat-proven aircraft in the world. Some 400,000 combat stories for the F-16, 75 air-to-air kills versus zero losses. So, the F-16 has a tonne of combat experience. We have used that experience and the experience of the people that are using F-16 in combat to improve the aircraft every generation.

On a personal note, I saw in your CV that you took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Did you fly F-16?

I did fly F-16s. I was able to drop bombs and shoot missiles from F-16s and I felt safe. I still think that there is no better aircraft in the world to go to combat in.

If we compare it to the competing offer for Gripen by Saab, which also entered the bidding for the Bulgarian contract, what are the differences and what problems might there be if Gripen is selected?

We tend not to talk poorly about competitors. The Gripen is an OK aircraft, and there are air forces that use it. We think that the strength of the F-16 is the fact that not only it is, in our opinion, a more capable aircraft, but it includes newer technology. The Gripen is using an older radar, the F-16 is using the most modern radar in the world. The F-16 has the experience of over 4,500 aircrafts sold and 3,000 currently flying, including 700 in NATO. And then when you include the idea that so many F-16 users are here in this part of the world, in eastern and central Europe, flying in NATO, we think that this really increases training opportunities, logistics, interoperability, and all the things that go with that. When Bulgaria buys its eight aircrafts, they will hopefully need to interact with other F-16s in NATO, and when they use common standards and tactics, I think it really enhances their capabilities.

There were some pricing concerns with the F-16. The US government hinted that it might be willing to tailor the offer to Bulgarian needs. How do you see that?

We do not comment on pricing because it is a government-to-government negotiation, but we, at Lockheed, are ready to support the US government's desire to help better meet the Bulgarian needs. We will support the US government in whatever decision they make.

As regards maintenance, are you willing to contact Bulgarian plants and companies in order to make sure they have the capacity to take care of the F-16s?

We think so. One of the strengths of the F-16 is that it has 12,000 hours of lifespan and the fact that it does not need to leave Bulgaria for maintenance. So, it is going to be maintained in Bulgaria by Bulgarians. To that point, as we look for industrial participation opportunities, we will look for opportunities to expand the ability to maybe help maintain other components on the F-16 for the F-16s here in the European operational theatre.

You were responsible for the upgrade of the Greek F-16s. How can this be done in Bulgaria in the future?

The good news is that the F-16s for the Bulgarian Air Force will be the most modern F-16s in the world, they will not need to be upgraded for decades to come. As far as interoperability, the F-16V in Greece will have the same components so that will add to the interoperability between Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the Slovakian F-16 Block 70s, which are going to be the same exact aircraft. As we look at those components, it will hopefully help expand and allow Bulgaria access to a greater pool of spares and weapons. As you pool resources, as the north European countries did, it should offer opportunities for Bulgaria to participate not just in the maintenance and logistics of the F-16s here in Bulgaria, but maybe in the region.

Good fighter planes need good pilots. How long will it take before we can have pilots who can fly those perfect machines?

We think that training will start fairly soon in the US because it is a long process. Bulgarian pilots are excellent pilots. We look forward to working together with the US Air Force, which will be responsible for the training. We think that those Bulgarian pilots who train in the US will be able to fly the F-16s the day they arrive here in Bulgaria, hopefully flown by the Bulgarian pilots. We think that the day the jets arrive, they will be ready, with the Bulgarian pilot and maintainers, to pick up the mission right away.

You were an instructor in the past. Have you ever trained Bulgarian pilots?

Never Bulgarian pilots, a few pilots of other air forces. It is exciting, I still wish I could fly so that I can fly with Bulgarian pilots, but I am too old now.

You have other orders for the F-16 Block 70 from Bahrein and Slovakia, for which you will use the capacity of the South Carolina plant. When are we going to see the first plane of that type come out of the production line?

We have to be careful because we do not want to divulge information about other customers. Like I said, we expect to begin production in 2019. As you can imagine, there is a time built into the production process. But we are excited, the reason we were able to internally at Lockheed Martin find a way to accelerate delivery for the F-16 Block 70 for Bulgaria was that we were looking to build production capacity so we are actually increasing capacity with the expectation that we will have more Block 70 customers in the future. We want to make sure that we get the jets here to Bulgaria as soon as we can.

Let us put things in perspective. Let us say, it is the day after the signing of the contract, how long before the first F-16 Block 70 arrives in Bulgaria?

We will have to keep that a secret for now. I know that that is a question everyone loves to ask. We hope to provide more information in the future. But, once again, that is part of the government-to-government negotiations and so we have to be careful about what we say. I cannot promise anything without first getting approval from the US government. And it also depends on the timing of the signature of the contract. As the negotiations take place and the discussions between the US and the Bulgarian government, so we come up with the final solution that best fits the needs of Bulgaria, and once we know those dates, then we will begin to produce those aircrafts. But we have to have the signature before we can move forward.

But is it two, three, or five years?

It is a secret.

How many pilots will have to be trained for the F-16s?

I think the Bulgarian Air Force has identified a specific number of pilots, but I do not know what those are, at the top of my head. The US Air Force, as part of our response and this complete package, has identified training opportunities for those pilots as well as the maintainers. I think that there is a clear path forward to get those pilots trained in the US Air Force and be ready when the F-16s arrive. As far as I know, there was an issue with the way of payment - Lockheed Martin insists on a bulk payment and Bulgaria would like to pay in installments. The US Foreign Military Sales is the US government's discussions with Bulgaria that will determine the payment profile. We, at Lockheed, work through the US government and so we cannot comment on payments.

You probably know that a century ago Bulgaria had a very developed air force and even production of airplanes. Some of our experts even moved to the US and took part in the creation of the B-26. Do you think that Bulgarians could still help your production process?

The F-16 production process is a well-established one so there may not be direct opportunities with the production of Bulgarian F-16s. But we look to seize upon the expertise that is still here in Bulgaria. We understand that there is a lot of companies, Lufthansa is one, I have been told, that have recognised the capabilities of Bulgaria and have moved facilities here for major repair and overhaul and other things. So we are going to look to identify opportunities like that, we are going to reach out to Bulgarian industry, technical universities, and the science academy, among others, to find what we think is the best opportunities here in Bulgaria. And then, of course, we want the Bulgarian government to give us their input as well. In the end, we plan to come up with a robust industrial participation package that will benefit Bulgaria and Bulgarians.

Unfortunately, there is a government shutdown in the US. The F-16 deal for Bulgaria will have to be approved by the Congress. Do you think that there will be a problem with that?

I do not think so. We won't comment politically and on the government shutdown, it is not our role at Lockheed Martin to do that. But since the Pentagon is still involved, we think that the process will not be slowed down. And as it works to the Foreign Military Sales process, congressional notification should go fairly quickly. As a NATO partner and an ally, Bulgaria will not have any problems with the congressional notification process. So we do not expect that this will slow the process down to get us to the final contract signature as soon as possible.

Do you think that eight F-16 planes will be enough to guard Bulgaria's airspace?

It is up to the nation itself to decide what the right number of aircrafts is. In my experience as an F-16 pilot, I think that eight F-16s are a very formidable force. Especially with the new radars, the ability for the radars to see so much farther than in the past, track more targets, and with the Link-16 network, I think those are critical aspects to allow Bulgaria to defend itself. The beauty is that because of the Link-16, because of the tactics we spoke about earlier, it will allow Bulgaria to also fall back, if needed, on support from other F-16 users, other NATO allies.

Some of the east European NATO pilots already fly F-16. Have there been any problems?

Not that we have seen. Every nation has its own challenges as they bring on new aircraft, whatever those may be, but we have seen Poland, as one of the larger users of F-16 in the region, be able to operate the aircraft very effectively. That is all part of our plan to make sure that everyone is trained appropriately. When the aircraft arrive, they are ready to operate right away. As we look at neighbours like Greece, they have a very robust F-16 fleet. We think there are a lot of opportunities for cross-training between nations flying similar aircraft. So that the Bulgarian pilots will be able to not only take their skills and expertise that they bring and possess here currently, but what they learn in the US and then together with the other F-16 allies in the region.

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James Robinson is an alumnus of the United States Air Force Academy. He also has a master's degree in organisational management from the George Washington University. Robinson has 15 years of experience as a pilot, instructor, and inspector in the US Air Force. He participated in military action during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. He has served as programmee manager with the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD) and for three years led the world's largest multinational pilot training escadrille. Since 2011, he has occupied various executive jobs in the aerospace industry. Since 2012, he has been in charge of Lockheed Martin's operations in central and eastern Europe. Presently, Robinson is international business development senior manager for F-16 at Lockheed Martin.

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