Our chances of getting a new kind of F-16 just dramatically shrank. The Indian air force recently signaled it would cancel a tender for foreign-made warplanes.
It was that contest that motivated American plane-maker Lockheed Martin LMT to develop a unique, highly-advanced F-16 variant the company called the “F-21.” The Indian air force in 2019 announced it would spend up to $15 billion buying 114 fighters.
The plan was for the new planes to replace old MiG-21s and fly alongside European-designed Jaguars, French Mirage 2000s and Rafales, Russian MiG-29s and Su-30s and India’s own indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft in what Lockheed described as “the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem.”
The F-21, Boeing BA’s F/A-18E/F, the Rafale, the European Typhoon, the Swedish Gripen E and the Russian MiG-35 and Su-35 all were contenders. Indian companies would have assembled the new jets on license.
No longer. “The Indian Air Force is switching that to the LCA,” Chief of the Defense Staff Bipin Rawat said in an interview. The air force would order 83 additional Tejas on top of the 40 LCAs the service already has paid for.
Those 83 LCAs would cost $6 billion. That’s less than half what New Delhi planned to spend under the previous tender, implying that cost motivated the decision. “The IAF is saying, I would rather take the indigenous fighter, it is good,” Rawat said.
The Indian air force in 2020 maintains just 28 fighter squadrons against a requirement for 42 squadrons. The service hopes to stand up three new units in 2020 as additional Rafales, Su-30s and LCAs arrive. Hindustan Aeronautics’ Tejas, which first flew in 2001, is far less sophisticated than the F-21 would have been.
The delta-wing, lightweight LCA can carry around 8,000 pounds of ordnance—half what an Indian Su-30MKI can haul. The Tejas also is slower and less maneuverable than India’s other foreign-made fighters are.
The F-21, by contrast, would have included technology from the company’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 F-21 design boasted new cockpit displays, conformal fuel tanks, a large airframe spine that could 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.
Production of the F-21 would have extended one of the world’s most successful fighter programs. Around 2,300 of F-16s fly for more than 30 air arms, accounting for no less than four percent of all the world’s military aircraft.
But even without an Indian order, Lockheed anticipates it could continue building new F-16s through 2030.