By N. C. Bipindra
New Delhi: Lockheed Martin Corp. will provide latest, fifth generation combat aircraft technologies from F-35 Lightning II and F-22 Raptor, including a target tracking device, aboard the F-21 that is being offered to Indian Air Force for the world’s largest order.
The global defence giant will offer F-21 jets — a combat aircraft better than its best selling F-16s — equipped with the advanced radar fitted on its fifth-generation combat planes such as the F-35, as well as a helmet-mounted tracking system, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-21 India Program Director Kurt Knust said in an interview recently.
“There are a lot of technologies that come into the F-21, including the latest radar on these platforms and the long-range Infra Red Search and Tracking System,” Knust said during a conversation with Defence.Capital, held online due to the COVID-19 global crisis.
Getting state-of-the-art fighters is crucial for Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the South Asian nation faces increased risks from neighboring Pakistan and China — two nuclear-armed nations — at a time when the Russian MiG-21 jets — India’s mainstay — is being phased out. As part of that plan, India had in Apr. 2018 sought information from global manufacturers for 114 combat planes, a deal worth at least $15 billion.
F-21 is a unique aircraft being offered to India. It has three-pronged unmatched capability – an advanced APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, triple missile launcher which carries 40 per cent more weapons, and a Dorsal Fairing, enabling increased growth capacity and indigenous systems integration in the future, Knust said.
“We are adding to the airplane, an advanced cockpit having a large area display to improve the pilot’s situational awareness, which is a feed down from the F-35,” he said. “We designed the F-21 to meet India’s unique requirements.”
The other significant aspect is the mid-air refueling capability. “This is the only fighter in the world capable of both probe/drogue and boom aerial refueling, which is important to the Indian Air Force,” Knust said. Most of India’s combat aircraft have probe and drogue for in-flight refueling. The United States Air Force normally follows the boom and receptacle refueling option.
The 114-jet order is an attempt to modernise the South Asian nation’s defence forces, a plan which could cost as much as $250 billion over a 10-year period ending 2025. Modi wants a significant part of it to be done locally under his ‘Make in India‘ campaign, which aims to promote domestic manufacturing.
Lockheed Martin sees a huge export potential to provide over 200 F-16s to the global market if India chooses the aircraft. The winner of the combat jet tender will be required to establish a production line within three years. The world’s largest defence firm has joined hands with Indian company, Tata Group, to produce the F-21 in India.
The American defence giant has drawn the attention of India to an enticing $165-billion F-16 combat aircraft ecosystem market globally, as it prepares to bid for the world’s biggest combat aircraft order.
It will be competing against compatriot Boeing Co.’s F/A-18, Swedish Saab Group‘s Gripen, Airbus Defence‘s Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian Aircraft Corporation‘s MiG-35 and JSC Aviation Holding Company Sukhoi‘s Su-35, apart from French Dassault Aviation‘s Rafale.
India’s air force is currently in need of 200 each of single-engine and twin-engine fighters, after its efforts over the last two decades to shore up its falling combat squadron strength has met with failures.
After going through eight years of a 2007 commercial tender for 126 combat jets, Modi scrapped the process under which Dassault Aviation was chosen to supply its Rafale jets, and instead signed up for 36 Rafale aircraft in an emergency purchase through government-to-government contract with France.
The Indian Air Force’s current fleet strength stands at 30 combat squadrons against sanctioned 42 squadrons. As India retires the MiG-series fleet, there is a fear that the combat strength may fall further below the 30 squadrons level that India has maintained for two decades now.
The Indian Air Force is also awaiting the signing of a deal for buying 83 ‘Tejas‘ Light Combat Aircraft Mk1A variant to make up for four squadrons, even as it is keenly looking forward to raising two Rafale squadrons.