The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RoNAF) has retired its last F-16 Fighting Falcon fourth generation fighters as its new generation of F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters take over all combat aviation duties. Norway was the first European country to activate an F-35 squadron, doing so in December 2019, after receiving its first aircraft just months after the U.S. Air Force in 2015. The country has long had a special defence relationship with the United States, with the country remaining outside the European Union but playing a vital role in projecting NATO power into and furthering Western interests in the Arctic including hosting growing numbers of U.S. assets. The country is also the first in the world to have a fighter fleet comprised entirely of fifth generation stealth aircraft, which was made possible by the small size of its forces and the priority it was allocated for F-35 deliveries. The F-35 is currently limited to a basic initial operating capability, and it is expected to be many years before it is considered ready for high intensity combat. The Pentagon has continued to delay certifying it for full scale production due to years long delays in solving performance issues that would provide a fuller combat capability.
The RoNAF announced on January 6th regarding the retirement of the last F-16s: “In dense snow drifts on Evenes, the F-35 started today the job of looking after Norwegian airspace. At the same time, the F-16 was thanked for 42 years of service for Norway and NATO.” The F-16 has increasingly been considered obsolete, having first entered service in 1978, with most major operators moving to reduce the number of units operational and consider options for replacement. Indeed, U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command chief General Mike Hostage predicted that the fighter would be essentially obsolete by the year 2024, with similar predictions being made widely, although American efforts to extent the fighter’s service life and modernise its armaments and avionics have been pursued out of necessity due primarily to delays with the F-35 program. Limitations on the F-35’s capabilities mean that Norway will be more heavily reliant than before on foreign support particularly for air defence in the event of actual combat, as its F-16s, although old, were still fully operational to a degree the F-35s are unlikely to reach before 2025. The F-35 is currently one of just two fifth generation fighters in the world in production and fielded at squadron level strength, alongside the Chinese J-20, and is expected to form the backbone of NATO air power for decades to come.