Just one step behind the F-22 Raptor, India could decide the fate of the ‘most advanced’ F-21 fighter jet after the elections

Lockheed Martin’s F-21 is a fighter jet specially configured for India. It is the US candidate for the deal for 114 Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

In addition to being a redesignated F-16, the F-21 has more power than the F-16 Block-70 fighter jets and is touted as just one step behind the 5th generation stealth fighter F-22 ‘Raptor’.

The EurAsian Times placed the characteristics of the two aircraft side by side to get a better idea of ​​the capabilities of the F-21 and F-22.

The sales pitch that American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin has given for the F-21 is: ‘For India, From India’.

Should Lockheed Martin win the deal, the F-21 production line will be moved to India. It has already collaborated with Indian firm Tata Group and established Tata Lockheed Martin Aerostructures Limited. The factory in India would produce the aircraft in India and parts for the global F-16 supply chain.

Some progress on the MRFA agreement is expected after India’s national elections conclude and a new government takes charge in New Delhi. Despite placing a major order for indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk1A, the IAF has sent a proposal to acquire 114 fighter jets with a ‘Make in India’ reservation.

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The proposal has yet to be accepted as a necessity by the government as the timelines for the development of LCA Mk2 and the MRFA deal will run concurrently.

Former Vice Chief of IAF Air Marshal Anil Khosla had told EurAsian Times that while the indigenous Tejas are easy to make, “there is a requirement for the new generation of multi-role aircraft to maintain a balanced force (until the domestic Tejas Mk II and Advanced Medium Fighters are ready).”

At first glance, the F-21’s design resembles the F-16 Block 70 fighter, but it also draws from the DNA of the F-22 Raptors and the F-35 Lightning II. About half of the F-21 and F-16 supply chains correspond to those of the second generation of US fighter jets.

The features that distinguish the F-21 from the F-22 are the airframe, weapons capacity, engine matrix and the availability of engine controls. The F-21 jets are described as the most advanced F-16 variant ever built, with futuristic avionics from the F-35 Lightning II and the F-22 Raptor.

The F-21 is a variant of the F-16 Block 70, and its IAF-specific features were also unveiled at Aero-India 2023. The sales pitch included an advanced APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which has detection ranges are nearly double that of previous mechanically scanned array radars and the ability to track and engage more targets with higher precision.

In addition, the F-21 will feature Triple Missile Launcher Adapters (TMLAs) that allow it to carry 40 percent more air-to-air weapons than previous F-16 designs.

In a video released by Lockheed Martin in 2019, the new variant appears to have ten missiles: eight radar-guided medium-range AMRAAM missiles, in addition to two AIM-9x Sidewinders. The fighter also featured an aerial refueling probe and an electro-optical targeting pod for Snipe.

Lockheed artwork shows the aircraft with a heavy weapons load and a Sniper targeting pod. The cockpit instrument panel features a large single screen, similar to the company’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-21 is an advanced, single-engine, multi-role fighter with the most optimal life cycle cost for the IAF and the longest service life of any competitor: 12,000 flight hours. The F-21 is also the only fighter in the world that can have both probe/drogue (the most widely used in the world) and boom (USAF standard) air fuel capability.

The probe-and-drogue tank equipment is simple, light and easy to install. A hose drogue pod can be added to any aircraft with sufficient payload, including fighter aircraft, large transport aircraft and UAVs. This and a conformal fuel tank will provide the IAF with greater penetration and stationary flight accommodation capacity.

Standard F-16s are refueled in flight with a boom. The special fuel system is tucked into massive, conformal fuel tanks on each side of the fuselage behind the cockpit.

The F-21 will feature an upgraded mission computer, state-of-the-art avionics and multi-function displays. A central pedestal display will help improve crew situational awareness through real-time flight data processing.

In addition, the F-21 will also come with an expandable display generator, a link-16 data link, support for multi-frequency HF/UHH/VHF radio communications and IFF (identification friend or foe) enhancements.

The three original computers will be replaced by a single modular mission computer, providing much greater computing power to the avionics and weapons systems, in addition to precision targeting, air-to-air attack performance and intelligence capabilities.

F-22 Raptor

The big advantage is that the American single-seat, twin-engine, supersonic weather-stealth fighter aircraft was developed for the United States Air Force (USAF).

The F-22’s stealth design drastically reduces radar cross-section (RCS) and infrared signature through airframe design, radar-absorbent materials and other advanced techniques.

The biggest advantage of the F-22 is that it super cruises, can fly at supersonic speeds without afterburners and can operate undetected. This combination gives the F-22 speed and range far greater than other fighters that rely on fuel-guzzling afterburners for supersonic flight.

The F-22 is designed to project air dominance quickly and at great distances. It is intended to defeat threats that attempt to deny entry to the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps. The sensor package allows the pilot to track, identify, shoot and kill air-to-air threats before they are detected.

An F-22 lands at Kadena AFB, Okinawa on March 28, 2024. Photo credit: Senior Airman Sabastian Romawac
18 Public Affairs Wing/US Air Force.

The Raptor carries six AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two AIM-9 Sidewinders in the air-to-air configuration. For air-to-ground missions, it can internally carry two 1,000-pound GBU-32 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, using onboard avionics for navigation and weapons delivery support.

Advances in low-observability technologies improve survivability and lethality against air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. The F-22 brings stealth to the day, allowing it to protect itself and other assets.

Meanwhile, the radar and electronic warfare system equips the F-22 with further enhanced threat detection and identification capabilities. Data can be transferred seamlessly to other aircraft via various communication systems.

F-21 and F-35 combo

Earlier, the US said India could not move directly from MiG-21s to F-35s and offered the F-21, after which the IAF could get access to stealth fighters.

Air Marshall Anil Chopra (retd) and ex-DG-CAPS believe that despite no direct supply of F-35s to India, Delhi’s geopolitical interests bring it closer to Washington (which probably means India could look at the F-21 and F-35). ).

The F-35s were taken to Aero India 2023 where they conducted daily flight demonstrations. This was the first time that a fifth-generation jet aircraft had operated on Indian soil. Was that a hint at the Indian establishment? However, the US wants India to first buy the F-16, F-18 or F-15 class aircraft for its fighter ecosystem.

India’s own AMCA stealth features are at least 15 years away. One line of thought would be to acquire two F-35A squadrons if the US is willing to give. However, an even higher priority for India is to acquire the 114 fighters for which the Request for Proposal (RFP) has still not been sent.

But since India is already the fourth largest economy and will soon be the third largest, India should spend money on security. As Russian supplies run out, the IAF has a surplus of capital funds, Chopra wrote for the EurAsian Times.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for more than a decade, writing about defense, foreign affairs and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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