144 F-21 Fighters for India; Will Lockheed Martin’s New Approach to Marketing the F-16 Succeed?
On February 20th 2019 the Lockheed Martin Corporation unveiled the F-21 single engine light multirole fighter in a bid to win a $15 billion contract to manufacture 144 aircraft for the Indian Air Force. The fighter would be manufactured jointly with India’s Tata Advanced Systems in the country. While touted as an entirely new platform however, upon closer look the F-21 appears to be a new design for a heavily modernised F-16 Fighting Falcon – a legacy platform which as been in service for 41 years since 1978 and which is increasingly being phased out of service by the United States and its allies in favour of newer platforms.
Analysts and officials alike have increasingly alluded to the obsolescence of the F-16 design in modern warfare, as well as that of its heavier twin engine counterpart the F-15 and its carrier based analogue the F-18. One prominent examples was Singaporean Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, who stated in 2019 regarding his own country’s fleet of Fighting Falcons: “F-16s would face obsolescence beyond 2030.” U.S. Air Force Air Combat Command chief General Mike Hostage for similarly predicted that the fighter would be essentially obsolete by the year 2024 – as well as the F-15.
With the Indian Air Force fielding one of the most capable combat fleets in the world and deploying a number of world leading fighter designs such as the Su-30MKI air superiority platform, the service has been highly reluctant to acquire the F-16. Not only is the aircraft closely associated with the Pakistani Air Force, which deployed the platforms in the 1980s Afghan War and later Kargil War, but it is also a fighter the Indian Air Force itself surpassed with the capabilities of its own medium weight fighter – the MiG-29. The fact that patrolling MiG-29s were capable of deterring Pakistani Fighting Falcons from intervening in the Kargil War, due to the Soviet platform’s vastly superior capabilities, had considerable impacts on the Indian military’s impression of the F-16 – which even in the 1990s appeared inadequate to provide an advantage.
To dissociate the new heavily upgraded F-16 fighters from their older counterparts in Pakistani service – platforms such as the F-16C which are deployed by American allies in almost two dozen countries – Lockheed Martin has rebranded its advanced new variant of the Fighting Falcon ‘F-21.’ The aircraft is in many ways highly similar to the F-16E deployed by the United Arab Emirates Air Force – making use of the more modern 132A variant of the F110 engine, deploying a powerful active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and incorporating new conformal fuel tanks for an extended range. The aircraft deploys some of the latest display systems available, and is expected to be compatible with the latest AIM-120D air to air missiles with a considerable 180km range. Unlike the F-16E however, the fighter’s payload has been expanded to carry six AIM-120 missiles – two more than the original platform, as well as two AIM-9X Sidewinders for short range engagements. This gives the F-21 the same missile payload as the far heavier F-15C, and makes it potentially lethal in beyond visual range air to air combat.
Whether or not India’s Air Force will contract Lockheed Martin to manufacture large numbers of the F-21 remains to be seen, with a number of variables set to influence this decision. The rebranding of the F-16 to reflect its new more advanced capabilities as a ‘4+ generation’ fighter could well go a long way towards persuading officials who were sceptical of the idea of purchasing a design over 40 years old to modernise the fleet. As Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, Vivek Lall, stated regarding the platform’s capabilities: “the F-21 is different, inside and out.” This is precisely the message that Lockheed Martin is attempting to convey with the renaming of the fighter – Russia adopted a similar strategy from the 1990s as its arms industry grew increasingly reliant on exports – reflecting enhancements to fourth generation designs to attain ‘4+’ or ‘4++’ generation capabilities.
The renaming of the Su-27 as ‘Su-30’ and ‘Su-35’ was a case in point. Given the difficulties of adding American fighters to the Indian fleet, which already operates arguably the most diverse range of fighter jets in the world which considerably reduces interoperability and increases operational costs, is set to be far from easy however – and with the country currently negotiating of the acquisition of the Russian MiG-35, a modernised adaptation of the MiG-29 design with arguably far superior capabilities and a lower cost, there will be a strong inclination towards acquisition of the Russian platform.
Source:- Military Watch Magazine