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

Defense giant Lockheed Martin cut the ribbon Tuesday on a South Carolina manufacturing site that aims to build F-16 fighter jets for U.S. allies around the world, although so far just a handful of orders are in the pipeline.

Politicians and company executives touted the new production line as the future of the venerable Fighting Falcon, now in its 45th year of production. Lockheed Martin moved production of the F-16 to Greenville from Forth Worth, Texas, where the company will expand its program.

The Upstate site will start building its first F-16 — part of a 16-jet order from the Royal Bahraini Air Force — by the end of this year.

"I'll tell you who this is not a happy day for — all the bad guys in the world, because these jets are coming your way," said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

"The jets that you're building here in Greenville will go into the hands of our allies that will make America safer," Graham said, "and that’s a great way to make a living."

Slovakia has signed a letter of agreement for 14 of the aircraft and the U.S. State Department recently approved the sale of 25 F-16s to Morocco. Bulgaria also is interested in purchasing fighters.

"We see a bright future as we continue to look at global security and the growth of the F-16 around the world," said Michelle Evans, executive vice president of aeronautics for Lockheed Martin.

The Greenville operations are expected to create more than 400 jobs while supporting thousands more at hundreds of U.S. suppliers in 41 states, including South Carolina.

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The Greenville site had been in the running for a $9.2 billion contract to build trainer jets for the U.S. Air Force, but that job was awarded last year to Boeing Co.

Lockheed Martin then turned its focus to finding new clients for a planet that Mike Fox, the Greenville site's general manager, calls "one of the most iconic fighter jets ever."

Lockheed Martin has built 4,588 of the jets for 28 air forces worldwide, including the United States. The company estimates about 3,000 of those F-16s are still flying.

The Block 70 F-16s that will be built in Greenville is a next-generation fighter jet that features advanced radar, a state-of-the-art electronic warfare system and automatic ground collision avoidance. The aircraft's upgraded airframe extends the service life by 50 percent to 12,000 hours.

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