The F-21 is a great combat system, but it is not infallible

American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin had 29th September, submitted a proposal evincing preliminary interest to supply F-21 fighter jets to the Air Force and winning the bid may result in it working with 400 local companies, a senior official has said.

The American company, which has a decade-long partnership with the TATA on defence manufacturing. The F-21 program is a very strategic win-win for both the counties. It gets India an entirely different aerospace ecosystem. We have talked to and evaluated 400 companies in India, both public and private, and that is the kind of infrastructure that will be needed to support this, It can be noted that aircraft manufacturers depend on a lot of vendors to supply components creating an entire downstream ecosystem, Vivek Lall told.

Old Wine In New Battle

There's no getting around the fact that the aircraft Lockheed is pitching to India - in response to an IAF tender for 114 fighters - is not a new generation aircraft but only an upgraded F-16 that first flew in 1974. In aeronautical time frame, that's ancient history.

In its bid to win the Indian order, Lockheed has gone for pushy salesmanship, which is never a good tactic. It is an especially unwise move in India where corruption in the defence sector is deep-rooted, with a string of big-ticket contracts tainted by kickbacks. In this backdrop, the rebadged F-16 seems like an amateurish attempt to impress the Indian market writes Rakesh Krishnan of Business Today.

Lacks Contemporary Sting

The F-16 fighter was originally conceived as a lightweight fighter for the United States and her NATO allies. In the U.S. Air Force, the “Fighting Falcon” would comprise the low end of a “high-low” mix of super-capable F-15s and cheaper, less capable F-16s.

Inevitably, the capable little single-engine fighter was pushed towards a more diverse array of missions. Originally conceived as just carrying short-ranged AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles, it gained the ability to launch the beyond visual range AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-120 AMRAAM. Over time it gradually evolved into a versatile air-to-ground platform with the ability to accomplish close air support, battlefield air interdiction and air defence suppression missions with a variety of precision-guided missiles, including the AGM-65 Maverick missile, AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile and Joint Directed Attack Munition precision-guided bomb reports Kyle Mizokami a US defence expert.

A confluence of events—including a series of budget-draining wars in the Middle East for which the F-16 has been “good enough” and delays in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program—have conspired to keep the F-16 flying much longer than originally intended. Why the F-16 is still in service is fodder for another article, but the bottom line is that it is serving today and is seriously outmatched by a new generation of Chinese fighters.

First, let’s look at one of the most recent and popular versions of the F-16, the Block 50 variant. Block 50 features a AN/APG-68 V(5) radar, F100-PW-229 after burning turbofan engine, and the AN/ALE-47 threat adaptive countermeasure system. The Block 50 has a maximum sustained speed of Mach 1.89, a range of 360 miles on internal fuel, and a ceiling described as “above 50,000 feet.” It can carry up to six AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range infrared homing missiles or six AIM-120 AMRAAM beyond-visual-range missiles, or some combination of either.

Despite the F-16’s longevity, obsolescence was inevitable. The F-16 will not fare well against a powerful new generation of Chinese fighters (and Russian fighters in its armoury). Moscow’s Su-35 Flanker and PAK-FA fighter and the Beijing’s J-20 stealth fighter, have in many way the one rendered the Fighting Falcon obsolete.

Although based on an contemporary of the F-16, the original Su-27 Flanker, the Su-35 has been more thoroughly updated than the spunky American fighter. The Su-35 may not be stealthy, but it can detect and engage the F-16 before the F-16 can detect it, and this puts the American plane at a big disadvantage. In a one-on-one fight, the F-16 will probably not even be able to get the Su-35 into dog-fighting range, where the smaller fighter’s legendary manoeuvrability would come into play.

The new Russian PAK-FA and Chinese J-20 fighters will have similar advantages, except their stealthy design will ultimately mean F-16s won’t even detect their adversaries before they realise they are being targeted by beyond-visual-range guided missiles, launched by aircraft that only visible on radar for the brief moment their internal weapons bay doors are open.

What could be done to give the F-16 better odds? The latest variant of the Fighting Falcon, the F-16V, will have the APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) radar, the first AESA radar retrofitted into the platform. SABR has been described as “fifth-generation fighter technology,” and indeed promises earlier detection, tracking and identification of targets sooner than older radars. The Republic of China Air Force’s F-16s will be the first to be brought up to -V standard. The U.S. Air Force is pondering a service life extension program (SLEP) for select aircraft in the F-16C fleet, and the SABR radar is an obvious candidate for inclusion.

Yet improving the F-16’s detection ability is only half the problem. While stealth has its disadvantages and countermeasures are inevitable, it’s also true that, like radar and electronic countermeasures, stealth is now permanently part of the essential feature set of modern combat aircraft. While China and Russia tout new anti-stealth measures, they are also making certain their own new aircraft are as stealthy as possible. That both countries, struggling to catch up with the United States, are still willing spend on stealth is a ringing endorsement of its value.

While SABR will likely improve the F-16’s ability to detect fifth-generation fighters such as PAK-FA and the J-20, it will still be easy for enemy aircraft to detect. The F-16’s lack of stealth is not something that can be addressed with upgrades to the airframe or an electronics package. The only solution is a new aircraft.

Effective Against Pakistan But Not China

Pakistan which has a weaker air defence system will face the bigger problem. Don't forget that after the Balakot air strikes and the February 27 air battle over J&K, Pakistan's airspace was closed for more than two weeks. Despite the hardship faced by domestic travellers and the huge economic consequences, Pakistan kept its airspace closed, writes Rakesh Krishnan.

The reason for the bizarre fly ban was that the entire Pakistani defence establishment was spooked by the Indian raid - the first in 48 years. The only way Pakistan could reliably identify enemy jets was if there was zero civilian movement in its airspace. Pakistan's Air Force has only the F-16 as a true blue front-line fighter jet, the others are Soviet era But not so in the case with China, the Chinese have a robust air defence system along with superior fighters and squadron strength.

Tejas Jeopardy

And now the bad news, Manufacturing the F-16 in India carries with it the danger that the defence import lobby would use it as an excuse to kill off the Tejas. The indigenous fighter, which has been wowing aviation experts and enthusiasts at air shows worldwide, is on the cusp of becoming India's first major armaments export.

If India places an order for the planned 114 fighters, there is the danger of the axe falling on the Tejas. With a limited share of the defence budget, the IAF may not have the cash to splurge on two separate fighter programs. As long as the air force brass are assured they'll get sufficient numbers of modern battle tested F-16s - or any other modern foreign fighter - they may not care what happens to the Tejas.

Provided it doesn't result in the cancellation of the Tejas fighter, Lockheed's offer is a win-win for India. The IAF should speed up negotiations and user trials so a deal can be inked quickly. For, the danger is that India's ponderous defence procurement machinery could drag the tender into the abyss - just like it did with the MMRCA. However, the SAAB Gripen is a dogged rival that has tasted success in South Africa, Czech Republic and Hungary but its analysis is reserved for another piece.


The F-16 still has a great deal of value against smaller, less technologically advanced air forces and air defences, as well as low- to mid-intensity conflicts such as Libya and Syria. It’s also useful as a bomb truck, carrying long-range munitions such as the JASSM cruise missile behind a protective wall of F-22 and F-35 fighters. But thanks to PAK-FA and the J-20, its days as a day-one front-line fighter are over. As the F-35 enters service with the United States and with its NATO and Asian allies, the F-16 begins its long, well-earned flight into the sunset. (With reporting by Kyle Mizokami-NI, Rakesh Krishnan-BT, AirForce Mag, WIB & ET)