Lockheed Martin F-16
Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jetsReuters

The multirole supersonic fighter jet F-21 that US aerospace and defence giant Lockheed Martin has offered India at Aero India 2019 in Bengaluru is a souped-up version of F-16, one of the world's most successful fighter jets. Lockheed Martin has offered to build in India-specific improvements into F-21 with significant 'Make in India' opportunities, media reports say.

The US company last year offered to sell Indian Air Force 114 F-16 fighter jets but met with apprehension in defence circles over the use of F-16 aircraft by India's arch-rival Pakistan. Pakistan Air Force has 32 F-16s, apart from 71 reportedly on order.

The F-21 fighter jet that Lockheed Martin has unveiled in Bengaluru this year is considered a vastly improved version of F-16, known by their Nato reporting name Fighting Falcon.

The company has so far built more than 4,500 F-16s since its launch in 1974. Observers point out that F-21 will be the first time F-16 will be hitting the defence market with a different name, unlike earlier occasions when it used to be differentiated only by the block names, like F-16I of Israeli Air Force. Pakistan has F-16s of Block 50/52.

A report in The Week said the F-21 designation appeared intriguing. It said F-16 had previously been criticised as being "too old" because of a service history spanning four decades and use by Pakistan. The report speculates that the new naming as F-21 could be part of Lockheed Martin's new branding strategy.

The website quotes, Vivek Lall, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, as saying: "The F-21 is different, inside and out." The aircraft is shown as configured to the needs of IAF.

Lockheed Martin's marketing pitch mentions "unprecedented Make in India opportunity" combining the strength of the "world's largest defence contractor with India's premier industrial house to deliver a win-win for India and the US."

Lockheed Martin has Tata Advanced Systems as its Indian collaborator. Last year, Lockheed Martin announced Tata Advanced Systems would build wings for all F-16s in service.

Observers say Lockheed Martin's offer to make India an F-16 production hub if it got the deal is indeed tempting. However, it is unlikely that the company would wish to antagonize US President Donal Trump by announcing a scaling down of the operations in the South Carolina plant. The company's Fort Worth, Texas plant is being adapted to build the company's F-35 stealth fighters.

Interestingly, reports said that during the Kargil war, India's MiG-29 fighters escorting Mirage 2000 ground attack aircraft twice got a lock on Pakistani F-16, patrolling well inside their own airspace, but did not press the trigger because of strike instructions to IAF not to escalate. F-16s never engaged MiG-29 reportedly because the latter was equipped with Russian-built lethal 80km range beyond visual range air-to-air missiles while F-16s in those days lacked BVR capability. They have since been upgraded with BVR weapons.

India has been trying to buy advanced aircraft for some time to replenish its depleted aircraft force mostly comprising ageing MiG-21 interceptors and MiG-27 ground attack aircraft. India also has Sukhoi 30 (Su-30MKI) air superiority fighters and upgraded Russian MiG-29 air superiority fighters as well as Mirage 2000s of French Dassault.

IAF is awaiting delivery of advanced Rafale multirole fighters of Dassault the deal for which Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government signed has led to much uproar over the involvement of Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence Limited as an offset partner.