Can Lockheed Martin F-21 Meet Indian Air Force’s Long-term Strategic Goals?

Lockheed Martin has emerged as a strong contender to bag $18 billion deal for supplying 114 multirole fighter jets to Indian Air Force (IAF) for which the request for information (RFI) was issued in April. The US arms maker apparently has gained an edge over the other contenders Boeing’s F/A-18, French Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian MiG-35 and Swedish SAAB’s Gripen.

Lockheed’s offer to start an assembly line in India for aircraft production, including meeting export demand, is a welcome boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India push and has been well-received in government circles. The arms maker has also promised not to sell the particular variant to any other country if India accepted the deal.

However, Lockheed would find it tough to convince all Indian experts that F-21 would be the best fit for meeting IAF’s long-term strategic goals, given the fast-changing regional geopolitical scenario and evolving technological ecosystem.

The delivery of the aircraft would continue well into the 2030s, considering the timeframe needed to finalize the deal, fine-tune the specifications and ramp up production. The F-21 warplanes are souped-up F-16s, though Lockheed claims significant improvements. That does not detract from the fact that Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had been operating F-16 for decades now.

One such plane was downed by an IAF MiG-21 piloted by Abhinandan Varthaman in a recent dogfight over Jammu and Kashmir after Indian attack of Balakot in retaliation to Pulwama bombing.

Pakistani F-16s are of Block 50/52 acquired in the 1980s while F-21s will be based on Block 70/72 versions. However, defence forces usually avoid equipment of similar make because of the enemy’s likely knowledge of the capabilities.

Lockheed has sought to deny F-21’s similarities with F-16 Fighting Falcon claiming there are significant differences between the two platforms.

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