F-16 in flight

A Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight. The aerospace and defense giant hopes to land more contracts for the fighter jet to support operations at its Greenville site. File/Giri Manullang/Lockheed Martin/Provided

Lockheed Martin is hoping there's still plenty of thrust left in its venerable F-16 Fighting Falcon.

After losing a $9.2 billion contract last month to build a new Air Force training jet — a project that was to have been based in South Carolina — the defense and aerospace contractor is shifting its focus to pursue new deals with foreign countries interested in buying F-16s made in Greenville.

"The strategy is to bring in additional work and continue to grow the business," Mike Fox, site director for Lockheed's Upstate operations, told the South Carolina Aerospace Conference and Expo this week. "We're aggressively pursuing additional sales."

The company's decision to move F-16 production this year from Fort Worth, Texas — where it had been based for four decades — to the S.C. Technology and Aviation Center in Greenville was seen as an interim move for a fighter jet with flagging sales.

The company's long-term plan was to move F-16 production to India, where a big contract is under discussion, and build next-generation training jets in South Carolina.

That was scuttled last month when Boeing Co. won the training jet contract, leaving the Greenville site with just one firm F-16 order — a $1.1 billion deal with Bahrain's military — and the hopes for more to keep roughly 150 people on the payroll.

Fox said Lockheed has been busy these past few months moving all of its F-16 tooling and equipment from Fort Worth, where the focus is shifting to production of the more popular and technologically advanced F-35 fighter. The first of 16 F-16s for Bahrain will enter the assembly building in Greenville in about a year, with deliveries scheduled to start in 2022.

"This sale highlights the significant, growing demand we see for new production F-16s around the globe," Susan Ouzts, vice president of the F-16 program, said in a statement.

Fox said he hopes to have more orders in hand soon.

Bulgaria, for example, "has a strong interest and we're in negotiations with them" to replace aging Russian MiG-29s. Slovakia wants to buy 14 F-16s. The U.S. government has approved the sale, but a deal hasn't been finalized. Fox said Lockheed recently brought defense leaders from southeast Asia to the Upstate to pitch F-16 sales to them.

The planes that Greenville workers will build are a next-generation version of the F-16 called the Block 70, featuring advanced radar, a state-of-the-art electronic warfare system, automatic ground collision avoidance and an upgraded airframe extending the service life by 50 percent to 12,000 hours.

The site also will continue to do maintenance work on existing F-16s, with more than 3,000 of the jets flying for more than two dozen air forces worldwide.

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"We have back-shop capabilities. machine work, upholstery — we do it all," Fox said. "That's what makes us very unique."

In addition to its Greenville operations, the F-16 supports thousands of jobs at about 450 suppliers worldwide and is a major contributor to the Palmetto State's $24.8 billion aerospace industry.

"As we bring in more contracts we will have a more significant impact," said Fox, a 22-year Air Force veteran who joined Lockheed in 2003 and moved to Greenville in April. 

Plans for an F-16 production line in India are still in the works, but only if that country agrees to buy at least 100 of the jets for its military. If it's built, the Indian production facility would also build and maintain F-16s for other countries.

If that happens, Fox is hoping there will be enough orders to support two F-16 production sites.

"We have a lot of growth potential," he said of the Greenville site. "We're committed to South Carolina."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_