At Aero India 2019, Lockheed Martin unveiled the F-21 multi-role fighter jet for India, to be produced locally. Specifically configured for the Indian Air Force (IAF), the F-21 provides “unmatched” Make in India opportunities and strengthens India’s path to an advanced airpower future, the firm said. Lockheed Martin and Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) would produce the F-21 in India and for India, it said in a statement. The US defence major that had earlier offered the F-16 to India, said the F-21 addresses the IAF’s unique requirements and integrates India into the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem. “The F-21 is different, inside and out,” said Dr Vivek Lall, Vice President, Strategy and Business Development, Lockheed Martin.
Developed in the early 1970s and inducted into service with the United States Air Force (USAF), the F-16, a single-engine combat aircraft has rendered yeomen service in the USAF and the Air Forces of several countries across the world including Pakistan Although developed over four decades ago, the platform has been periodically upgraded to remain, in terms of operational capability, on par with or even ahead of other competing platforms. The Block 70 which was offered to India in 2007 against the tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), was the latest version at that point in time and was more advanced than the Block 50 with Pakistan. Unfortunately for Lockheed Martin, the F-16 lost out to the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France.
Lockheed Martin has once again appeared on the scene in response to the second round of effort by the IAF at procurement of the MMRCA, the number this time being revised to 114. Request for Information (RFI) for this procurement was floated in April last year and the responses from seven global aerospace majors were received on July 07, 2018. This time, Lockheed Martin has come up with its offer of the latest version of the F-16, re-designated as F-21, which according to the US aerospace major, has been developed and configured specifically for the IAF. As per a statement from the company, “The F-21 features numerous India-specific changes tailored to meet the requirements of the IAF. The F-21 demonstrates Lockheed Martin’s commitment to deliver an advanced and scalable combat aircraft to the IAF. It also provides unrivalled industrial opportunities and accelerates cooperation between India and the US in the domain of advanced technologies.”
As the USAF is not going to place any more orders for the F-16 or its improved variants in the future as it is transiting to fifth generation, Lockheed Martin is prepared to shift its F-16 factory from Fort Worth, Texas to India and undertake further production jointly with TASL. In Texas, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) has plans to set up a new production facility for the F-35 Lightening II Joint Strike Fighter. Lockheed Martin already has a thriving partnership with TASL that is manufacturing airframe components for the C-130, the Chinook and the F-16.
The proposal to shift the F-16 production line to India has a number of clear advantages for India. Firstly, there are over 4000 F-16 aircraft operational in several countries across the globe as against 100 Gripens and 400 Rafale jets. Apart from production of this platform to meet with the requirements of the IAF, the F-21 production facility in India will have a huge readymade global market for new platforms as well as for spares. As per Lockheed Martin, “Partnership with the US for the production of the F-21 will help integrate India into the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem with the world’s pre-eminent aerospace and defence company. The unprecedented ‘Make in India’ opportunity would combine the strength of the world’s largest aerospace and defence contractor with one of India’s premier industrial houses to deliver a game-changing partnership as well as a historic win-win situation for both India and the US”. As per Vivek Lall, “The F-16 programme would provide unmatched opportunities for Indian companies of all sizes including Micro Small and Medium Enterprises and suppliers throughout the country to establish new business relationships with Lockheed Martin, the Tatas and other US and global industry leaders”. Sukaran Singh, CEO and MD, TASL, said “The F-16 India project will be of immense strategic importance for India especially to build new capabilities in the Indian aerospace and defence manufacturing sector”.
Another advantage would be that the tie up with Lockheed Martin could provide the much needed impetus to the indigenous programme to develop the fifth generation advanced medium combat aircraft especially as India has abandoned the fifth-generation fighter aircraft programme with Russia. But what would be of critical importance is the factor of affordability in view of the large number of combat platforms the IAF would need to procure. As of date, the IAF is deficient of around 200 aircraft and by 2025, with the retirement from service of the older fleets, the deficiency is likely to increase to around 300 aircraft or even more. As this single-engine combat platform would have a significantly lower price tag as compared with heavier twin-engine aircraft, the F-21 would certainly by more easily affordable for the nation than import of a twin-engine platform in the numbers required.