Meet the F-21: India's New Super Fighter (Or Just an Old F-16?)

David Axe

Key point: The F-21 has some upgrades but is based on the existing F-16. As such, it might not win India's contract.

Lockheed Martin is developing a new variant of its iconic F-16 single-engine fighter in order to compete in India’s 2019 tender for 110 new warplanes.

But don’t count on the American firm’s “F-21” to win the contract.

According to journalist Angad Singh, the likely winner is French company Dassault’s Rafale twin-engine fighter.

Singh explains his rationale in the May 2019 issue of Combat Aircraft magazine. India previously ordered 36 Rafales as part of an earlier fighter tender. “With 36 aircraft already on order and the infrastructure in place for an additional 36, a case could certainly be made that training, basing and sustainment costs for additional aircraft would not be an impossible burden.”

Other candidates for the Indian tender are the Saab Gripen from Sweden, the European Eurofighter Typhoon, the MiG-35 from Russia and the Boeing Super Hornet from the United States. Whichever fighter New Delhi selects, it needs the new jets now, according to Singh.

“The government-approved strength of the Indian Air Force, given the country’s well-publicized security scenario and the possibility of a ‘two-front’ threat of combined Pakistani and Chinese air action to the west and northeast, is 42 fighter squadrons,” Singh writes.

“There is little clarity on how this exact number was arrived at, but nonetheless, the IAF hasn’t come close to this strength for two decades, and has never approached anything near a force entirely equipped with modern aircraft.”

In 2019 the Indian air force maintains just 30 fighters squadrons. The units operate, among other plane types, 244 1960s-vintage MiG-21s and 84 MiG-27s that are only slightly younger. The MiG-21s, in particular, are accident-prone. Since the first of 874 MiG-21s entered Indian service in 1963, around 490 have crashed, killing around 200 pilots.

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