India may soon acquire a supercharged F-16 specifically tailored to them by Lockheed Martin as part of an effort to match, rival or exceed Chinese air supremacy in the event of a conflict

by Kris Osborn

Called the F-21, the remodelled planes incorporate several specific-to-India technologies, according to Lockheed developers. Some of these technologies include an advanced, Northrop built APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array, Electronic Warfare systems and Triple Missile Launcher Adaptors “allowing the F-21 to carry 40-percent more air-to-air weapons than previous F-16 designs.” 

“The F-21 is also the only fighter in the world capable of both probe/drogue and boom aerial refuelling, and it has the longest service life of any competitor—12,000 flight hours,” Lockheed spokesman John Losinger told The National Interest. 

The new AESA radar, he added, nearly doubles the range of existing radar systems, enabling much more substantial detection and targeting capability. The F-21 also uses a U.S. Navy-built advanced Infrared Search and Track targeting technology. IRST is used extensively in U.S. Navy Super Hornet F-18 upgrades. Navy officials have described the IRST system is a passive, long-range sensor that searches for and detects infrared emissions. IRST is designed to simultaneously track multiple targets and provide a highly effective air-to-air targeting capability, even when encountering advanced threats equipped with radar-jamming technology, Navy developers explained. 

The IRST technology was specifically engineered with a mind to the fast-changing electromagnetic warfare environment and the realisation that potential future adversaries are far more likely to contest U.S. dominance in these areas. IRST also provides the Super Hornet an alternate air-to-air targeting system in a high threat electronic attack environment, developers explained. The IRST technology, designed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin, is designed to search for heat signals over long distances, providing the aircraft with key targeting information. The IRST system—which has been tested on F/A-18s, is passive and therefore harder to detect than some radar technologies which give off radiation, Navy officials said.

The F-21 could doubtless have a strategic impact upon the India-China rivalry as advanced 4th Gen aircraft are still quite viable given the series of upgrades. The U.S., for instance, has embarked upon substantial weapons and technology upgrades for its F-16, F-15 and F-18 in an effort to sustain the combat efficacy and service life of the aircraft; they still very much pose a substantial threat to potential adversaries. However, it is fair to say that an advanced F-21, while potentially producible on a fast timeframe, may not be equipped to rival the Chinese J-20 or J-31 5th-Gen stealth aircraft. 

At the same time, India’s ultimate decision on the F-21, which recently appears to be leaning toward acquiring the plane, could easily be further influenced by recent Chinese provocations. A May 29 report in The Indian Express reports that satellite images show a threatening Chinese deployment near the Indian border.

“Highly placed sources said a detailed analysis of satellite images has shown extensive deployment of towed artillery and mechanised elements on the Chinese side, bringing Indian deployments within striking distance,” the paper writes.