Lockheed Martin in mid-February 2019 offered to sell India a new fighter the company calls the “F-21.”
Only it doesn’t look like a new fighter at all. The F-21 looks like an F-16.
In fact, the F-21 is an F-16 that Lockheed has upgraded with new cockpit displays, conformal fuel tanks, a larger airframe spine that can accommodate additional electronics, fittings for towed radar decoys, a new infrared sensor and a refueling probe that’s compatible with India’s Russian-made aerial tankers.
“The F-21 addresses the Indian air force’s unique requirements,” Lockheed stated.
The rebranding raises an important question. At what point do upgrades transform an old fighter into a new fighter?
It isn’t a purely academic question. The number of different fighter types that a country simultaneously can produce is a useful marker of that country’s war-making capacity.
India for years has been struggling to replace a large fleet of old, Russian-made warplanes. In 2018 the Indian air force operated 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.