Maybe India Will Get Its Super F-16, After All
Hang on—maybe the Indian Air Force will buy the F-21, a sort of “super F-16” from U.S. plane-maker Lockheed LMT Martin. India’s chief of the defense staff Bipin Rawat said in a May 15 interview that the air force would cancel its tender for 144 foreign-made jet fighters and instead order 83 additional Indian-made Tejas Light Combat Aircraft on top of the 40 LCAs the service already has paid for.
“The Indian Air Force is switching that to the LCA,” Rawat said.Rawat’s announcement seemed to be the death-knell for the F-21, a greatly-upgraded F-16 variant that Lockheed is developing specifically for the Indian tender.
But hold on! Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, the head of the Indian Air Force, on May 18 contradicted Rawat. Bhadauria clarified that the Indian Air Force wants both the 114 foreign planes and the additional LCAs.
The lightweight Tejas with its single engine and four-ton payload is in a different class than are the medium-weight fighters—some of them with two engines—that the air force hopes to acquire under the 144-plane tender.
For the record, Bhadauria explained that the air force’s current fighter-acquisition programs include the foreign tender, a long-term requirement for 100 “advanced medium combat aircraft” plus separate purchases of 36 Rafales from France as well as up to 200 LCAs in several variants.
The 114-plane program could cost $15 billion. The new, 83-plane LCA purchase, which comes on top of a previous order for 40 of the type, could set back New Delhi around $6 billion.
The F-21, Boeing BA BA’s F/A-18E/F, the Rafale, the European Typhoon, the Swedish Gripen E and the Russian MiG-35 and Su-35 all are contenders for the 114-fighter program. Indian companies would assemble the new jets on license.
The F-21 arguably is the most sophisticated of the candidates. Compared to older F-16s, the design boasts new cockpit displays, conformal fuel tanks, a large airframe spine that can accommodate communication systems or radar-jammers, fittings for towed radar decoys, a new infrared sensor and a refueling probe for use with India’s Russian-made aerial tankers.
The super-F-16 also includes technology from Lockheed’s F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. “The F-21 has common components and learning from Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation F-22 and F-35 and will share a common supply chain on a variety of components,” Lockheed stated on its website on the morning of Feb. 20, 2019.
A few hours later, that claim disappeared from the site. In any event, the F-21 would have been the most advanced version yet of the single-engine F-16, which flew for the first time in 1974.
The Indian air force in 2020 maintains just 28 fighter squadrons against a requirement for 42 squadrons. The current force includes European-designed Jaguars, French Mirage 2000s and Rafales, Russian MiG-29s and Su-30s and the Tejas.
The service hopes to stand up three new units in 2020 as additional Rafales, Su-30s and LCAs arrive