As the F-4G retired from service in 1996, a new aircraft stepped in: the Block 50/52 configuration of the Lockheed-Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon, commonly referred to as the Viper. The delineation between the Block 50 and Block 52 is simply the motor; Block 50s are reliant upon General Electric engines, and the Block 52s are powered by Pratt & Whitney engines. Both are in the same thrust category, so there’s no performance degradation, despite the difference in manufacture.

The Block 50/52 Viper is flown by eight U.S. squadrons – some of which are forward deployed to bases the European and Pacific theaters. Despite the lack of a dedicated EWO as a second crewman, the Block 50/52 with its upgraded radar and avionics, JHMCS, advanced targeting pod, and HARM Targeting System (HTS) make it an incredibly deadly platform. Like every other U.S. F-16, these Vipers are small, powerful, and supremely agile fighters; the units employing them provide the backbone to the USAF’s SEAD/DEAD capability.

A Lockheed-Martin Block 52 F-16CJ from the 16th Weapons Squadron prepares to launch for a night sortie at Nellis AFB, NV
A Lockheed-Martin Block 52 F-16CJ from the 16th Weapons Squadron prepares to launch for a night sortie at Nellis AFB, NV

The Super Weasel had been born.

“It was a very interesting time when we set up the Block 50s to do SEAD/DEAD,” said Brigadier General Charlie “Tuna” Moore, former commander of the 57th Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

Moore was a young lieutenant and then captain stationed at Shaw AFB, in Sumter, South Carolina, when the handoff of the Wild Weasel torch occurred between the F-4Gs and Block 50 F-16s. At that time, the base teemed with a lot of civilian experts from Lockheed-Martin, giving the young guys the flexibility to really pick the brains of the folks with SEAD experience from previous conflicts, something the F-16 community was severely lacking.

“Personally it was a great opportunity because this was something we’d never focused on before,” Moore recalled. “F-16s carried the HARM during Desert Storm, but they were dependent upon the F-4Gs to employ the missile with any effect. This was very different because the Block 50 was going to be self-reliant.”

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A Block 52 F-16CJ Fighting Falcon from the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Squadron sits in a hangar at Joint National Guard Base McEntire

Initially, the F-4G community raised the alarm, voicing serious concerns about the survivability of the much smaller, lightweight F-16, based on the fact the new fighter was just that—new—and had not yet matured as a weapons system.  It is also a single-seat aircraft which, from the F-4 perspective, denied the pilot the additional SA by having an expert at electronic warfare helping determine exactly what the systems were seeing and reacting appropriately. As the intricate timing of war began to split the seconds, it was critical for the new Weasel platform measure up to the task.

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No less than four Wild Weasel squadrons are based in South Carolina. Just down the road from Shaw lies McEntire Joint National Guard Base, home of the South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing (FW). This storied unit has operated F-16s since 1983, before many active duty units had received the multirole aircraft. They received their first Block 52 jet in 1995 and have since been executing the SEAD/DEAD role with exceptional results.

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A South Carolina Air National Guard F-16CJ takes off from McEntire JNGB for a SEAD/DEAD training mission.

Proudly wearing “SOUTH CAROLINA” on each tail, the latest Swamp Fox jets have seen action in operations over Iraq and Afghanistan and the unit has amassed a wealth of Wild Weasel experience over the years.

Colonel Meyer echoes this sentiment. “By virtue of us having done the same mission in the same jet from the same location for as long as we’ve been at this base, it obviously brings with it a level of expertise hard to rival.”

Block 50 F-16CJs of the 55th and 77th Fighter Squadrons from Shaw AFB, SC.
Block 50 F-16CJs of the 55th and 77th Fighter Squadrons from Shaw AFB, SC.

But it’s not just the Swamp Fox itself benefiting from their greatly specialized, cohesive nature.The three USAF active duty F-16 squadrons in Shaw’s 20th FW – the 55th FS, 77th FS, and 79th FS – also profit from the high experience level of the Swamp Foxes at nearby  McEntire JNGB. Since all four units focus their training primarily on the SEAD/DEAD mission, each benefits from the other in many respects.

Training against advanced SAM systems is not cheap and the ability to either buy or replicate these systems has not kept up with the advances in technology. However, since they are located near airspace and electronic ranges tailored to their SEAD mission set, both bases are able to train more effectively and oftentimes together to enhance interoperability between the active-duty Air Force and Air National Guard (ANG) units. This relationship is further fostered by the Air Force’s Total Force Integration program, which places active-duty personnel at ANG or Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) units, and vice versa. The Swamp Fox was for many years a unique example among ANG units, but recently the Minnesota ANG completed its conversion to the Block 50 Viper and has taken up the shared responsibility for the SEAD mission, too.

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A brand-new Wild Weasel pilot prepares to start his Block 52 F-16CJ at McEntire JNGB, preparing to launch for a training mission.

Meyer remarks SEAD is here to stay, since it is “already planned to be the primary mission set for the F-35. The threat is certainly not going away. The biggest counter to air supremacy is air defenses…we need something that can get in there and take care of that particular problem.” The Swamp Fox motto of Semper Primus, meaning, “always first” is fitting for the entire Weasel community. They will be ready to fight when called upon, ready to carry on the proud legacy and to be First In, Last Out.

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The authors would like to thank: Brigadier General Charlie “Tuna” Moore, (former) 57 WG/CC; Major Mae-Li Allison and Senior Master Sergeant Kelley Stewart, 99 ABW/PA; Colonel David “Oscar” Meyer, 169 FW/CC; Colonel Boris “Robo” Armstrong, 169 FW/CV, Major Ryan “Rider” Corrigan, 157 FS; Captain Justin “Razor” Puro, 157 FS; Major Jim Roth, Senior Master Sergeant Ed Snyder, and Tech Sergeant Caycee Watson,169 FW/PA.