Park an F-16 just about anywhere and someone’s going to take a selfie.
It happened on Friday in Greenville, when Lockheed Martin chocked the tires of the first F-16 made in South Carolina. There on the sprawling aerospace company’s campus at the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center, Lockheed Martin allowed politicians, news media, engineers and technicians to sidle up alongside military leaders from two countries to take photos with the latest version of one of history’s most storied fighter jets.
The venerable F-16 is new again, the latest iteration known as the Block 70 and bound for air forces in nations like the Kingdom of Bahrain — countries the U.S. government says shares America’s interests and objectives.
This one — the first one — just a velvet rope away from its builders and buyers as cell phone cameras recorded the moment that Lockheed Martin unveiled the aircraft in dramatic fashion, complete with flashing lights, music and a fog machine. It was an impressive sight, even with its thunder silent.
The biggest smile may have been on the face of Maj. Gen. Hamad Al Khalifa, commander of the Royal Bahraini Air Force. Just moments before, he signed documents accepting the first Greenville-made F-16 on behalf of his kingdom. It is the first Block 70 for Bahrain but not the first F-16 — the country was the first in the region to operate the fighters in the 1990s — and it is not the last. The country has ordered a total of 16 and, with one in the books, Lockheed Martin has a growing backlog of 127 jets from five other countries. In addition, Jordan has signed a Letter of Offer and Acceptance for 12 jets and Bulgaria wants eight, the company said.
“The Royal Bahrani Air force is proud to be the first air force to own and operate the world’s first Block 70 fighter, an aircraft second to none,” Hamad said. “I would like to thank each and every one who worked hard to make this event a great success. … On behalf of the Royal Bahraini Air Force and myself personally I would like to extend the deepest appreciation and gratitude to every technician, specialist, supervisor and engineer who spared no effort on the production line to build our F-16. Lockheed Martin, thank you very much for a job well done.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, who was there for the original announcement about the Lockheed Martin contract with Bahrain, was back Friday to celebrate delivery. On both occasions he spoke of the need to make sure U.S. allies are prepared to defend themselves.
“The one thing I can tell every American and every South Carolinian is we have no better partner than the Kingdom of Bahrain,” Graham said. “The U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. Bahrain hits above its weight when it comes to military capability. Your air force is legendary and you make America safer. … the common threats that Bahrain and the United States face have to be fought together. I’ve learned through my travels that having allies is better than doing it by yourself. Keeping the war away from America is better than fighting it here. And the only way that’s going to work is to have partners over there that will protect us here. So these jets are going to a reliable, stable partner, and in a world that is unstable and unreliable, thank God for Bahrain.”
Graham said he would like to see F-16s in the hands of more U.S. allies, including the Ukrainian military.
“This relationship (with Bahrain) has stood the test of time,” he said to the Bahraini military leaders. “You have been with us, our friends in Bahrain, through thick and thin. After 9-11 you were there for us. You’ve given us access to a part of the world that is invaluable for American national defense. You have provided us essential intelligence to protect the American homeland. You are our eyes and ears in a faraway place. You have proven your worth many times over.”
Graham, a Republican from the Upstate, joked that “if you can drive it, fly it or shoot it, we make it.” He said that Greenville is one of only three places in America that manufactures fighter jets. The U.S. military still flies the F-16 and will for years to come but is not purchasing new F-16s. Lockheed Martin moved production to Greenville to make way for the F-35 at its Texas production site.
The Lockheed Martin Greenville site since 1984 had been — and still is — a sustainment site for Lockheed Martin aircraft already in service (including 3,000 F-16s), but assembly of the F-16 brought a new focus and new jobs. More than 1,400 people work at the 276-acre site now, with 300 added in the last year and plans for more.
"The F-16 celebrated today was built by our talented, committed workforce in Greenville," Danya Trent, vice president, F-16 Programs and Greenville site leader for Lockheed Martin, said in an announcement. "We are proud to call Greenville the global home of the F-16 and look forward to continuing to produce jets serving missions around the world."
The jet unveiled Friday will go from Greenville to Edwards Air Force Base for more testing and is expected to be delivered to Bahrain in 2024, a Lockheed spokesperson said.g