Lockheed Martin Deletes Claim That Its Rebranded F-21 Could Be A Path To Indian F-35s

The company is still pitching the rebranded advanced F-16 variant as a 'made-in-India' contender for the country's major fighter jet competition.

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin has rebranded its latest advanced F-16 offering for India as the F-21 and has shown the jet would have new features, including a revised glass cockpit and other advanced features. But the pitch appears to be much more about opportunities industrial cooperation in India, a major factor in the latest iteration of India's fighter jet tender, than technological enhancements. It might even pave the way for the country to join the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program – a claim the company scrubbed from its official F-21 webpage shortly after it went live.

The Maryland-headquartered defense contractor revealed models of the F-21 and released a computer-generated video presentation about the jet to coincide with the beginning of this year’s Aero India trade show on Feb. 20, 2019. Lockheed Martin’s fighter jet is squaring off against Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, France’s Rafale, the European Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Gripen E, and Russia’s MiG-35 Fulcrum and Su-35 Flanker for India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. The Indian Air Force hopes to eventually purchase at least 115 aircraft through this program, a deal that could be worth up to $18 billion, which has been a more than decade-long saga that you can read about in more detail here.

“The F-21 is different, inside and out,” Dr. Vivek Lall, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said in a statement. “The new designation highlights our commitment to delivering an advanced, scalable fighter aircraft to the Indian Air Force that also provides unrivaled industrial opportunities and accelerates closer India-US cooperation on advanced technologies.”

So far, Lockheed Martin has not specifically explained the origins or meaning of the F-21 nomenclature. The U.S. military originally assigned F-21 in its aircraft nomenclature system to a small fleet of ex-Israeli Kfir fighter jets that the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operated as “red air” aggressors between 1985 and 1989. Today, a U.S. contractor flies still flies Kfirs in adversary support roles and still refers to the type as the F-21. Highly upgraded Kfirs are also still flown by a number of air arms around the globe.

The origins of the new designation may be similar to the decision-making process behind the B-21 nomenclature for the U.S. Air Force’s future stealth bomber. In 2016, the service announced it had picked B-21, an out-of-sequence designation, to reflect its acquisition of the “first bomber of the 21st century.”

As for what exactly is different “inside and out” between the F-21 and earlier F-16s, Lockheed Martin has offered few specifics. The jet is only the latest in a string of India-targeted Viper offerings that began with the development F-16IN Super Viper in the late 2000s, also known as the F-16 Block 70. Features from this variant then ended up part of an upgrade package for older Vipers, known as the F-16V. Lockheed Martin has now effectively blended these two separate efforts together.

The most notable and apparently new feature in the F-21 video presentation is the consolidation of the cockpit displays into a single large flat panel screen. Previous glass cockpit configurations for the F-16IN, Block 70, and V model aircraft featured three separate digital multi-function displays.

This is similar in some general respects to the single panel design in Lockheed Martin’s stealth F-35. It also mirrors the decision Boeing made with regards to the cockpit configuration in its latest Block III Super Hornets and F-15QA Advanced Eagles for Qatar. This type cockpit arrangement will make it easier for pilots to rapidly find the information they’re looking for and offers additional flexibility over fixed “steam gauges” or even smaller digital displays. It makes it easier to add new features to the display itself and link it new and improved sensors and other systems in the future, as well.

During a media briefing on the Super Hornet that we at The War Zone attended in 2018, Boeing noted that an aviator could move and resize certain display elements on the screen, just like shifting things around on a computer desktop, to better suit their particular style. It would also allow the rapid resizing of certain displays, including video feeds from targeting pods, to make it easier to positively identify targets or other items of interest. It seems likely that the F-21’s display will have similar functionalities.

Lockheed Martin

An artist's depiction of the new large panel display in the F-21.

The F-21 notably has a big dorsal spine that has only appeared previously operationally on advanced two-seat F-16 derivatives. This addition can accommodate avionics, communications equipment, countermeasures systems, and more.

The jet also has a probe-and-drogue refueling system that extends from the starboard conformal fuel tank, as well. However, Lockheed Martin first demonstrated this system, known as the Conformal Air Refueling Tank System, in 2010 as part of the development of the F-16IN. It also reduces the total amount of fuel that the tank can carry.

Lockheed Martin

Lockheed Martin personnel use a Block 60 F-16F to test the Conformal Air Refueling Tank System in 2010. The logo of the company's Skunk Works advanced projects division is visible on the side.

The video presentation does show the F-21 carrying three AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) missiles on new racks, which gives the jet added air-to-air magazine depth even when carrying underwing fuel tanks or other stores. The outboard underwing pylons will also be able to deploy the AN/ALE-50 towed decoy, but this had been a previously announced feature for the F-16s Lockheed Martin was offering to India and was first seen on Block 50/52 Vipers.

Lockheed Martin capture

A look at the trip AIM-120 arrangement, as well as the outboard pylon with provision for the AN/ALE-50 decoy from the F-21 video.

The F-21s in Lockheed Martin's video are also each carrying a Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP) and an Infrared Search and Track (IRST) pod on their chin stations. The latter system would give the jets an improved ability to spot stealthy threats.

It's not otherwise clear how much the F-21's configuration might differ from previous existing Block 70 and F-16V variants. These Vipers featured a host of significant improvements over existing variants, including Northrop Grumman's AN/APG-83 active electronically scanned array radar, also known as the Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR).

They also had new avionics, improved navigation equipment, updated mission computers and data links, and compatibility with the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System II (JHMCS II). The advanced F-16 variants had more powerful electronic warfare suite for self-protection, too.

Lockheed Martin

A page from a Lockheed Martin brochure on its previous F-16 Block 70 proposal for India describing, in part, how the aircraft's added capabilities improve its operational performance. The "threats" depicted are notably Chinese J-20 stealth fighters, which are a growing concern for the Indian Air Force.

But the real thrust of Lockheed Martin’s F-21 push seems to be to promote the potential for significant industrial cooperation that comes with its bid versus that of its opponents. The MMCRA competition requires bidders find a local partner and the American firm has been working with Indian industrial giant Tata for its proposal.

The U.S. defense contractor has long said it plans to shift its F-16 production lines to India in cooperation with Tata. It has gone so far as to suggest it could establish an F-16 production line in the country regardless of whether it wins the MMCRA deal or not. 

The first thing you see in the video presentation Lockheed Martin released on Feb. 20, 2019, is a stylized depiction of this notional Indian Viper plant with Tata branding. There are also clips showing an F-21 refueling from a KC-130J tanker, an aircraft Lockheed Martin has already sold to India and that features made-in-India components.

Lockheed Martin capture

F-21s refuel with a KC-130J in Lockheed Martin's video.

But more curiously, Lockheed Martin initially implied that the F-21 could be a stepping stone to Indian participation in the F-35 program, something that has been a sensitive topic of discussion over the years.  

“The F-21 has common components and learning from Lockheed Martin’s 5th Generation F-22 and F-35 and will share a common supply chain on a variety of components,” Lockheed Martin initially said on its F-21 webpage, which first appeared online on Feb. 20, 2019. “Approximately half of the F-21 and F-16 supply chains are common with the F-22 and F-35.”

However, the official F-21 page no longer makes those claims or that the fighter jet is “India’s pathway to F-35." It now says instead that the jet would “strengthens India’s path to an advanced airpower future.” There does not appear to be an archived copy of the original webpage, but the details have been widely reported.

The F-21 product card, which is still available online, only says that "Innovative technologies derived from Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and F-35 – the world’s only two operational 5th Generation fighters – strengthen India’s path to an advanced airpower future." It has no mention of the shared supply chains or potential sale of F-35s to India.

Lockheed Martin

This graphic, with an F-35 leading a flight of F-21s, is the only remnants of Lockheed Martin's initial comments about the latter fighter jets serving as a stepping stone for India to join the Joint Strike Fighter program.

It wouldn’t be the first time that Lockheed Martin has had to backtrack on public statements regarding India’s involvement in the F-35 program. In January 2018, the company swiftly denied that it had offered the stealth fighters to the Indian Air Force. This was in response to the Press Trust of India publishing an interview with Lockheed Martin Aeronautics executive Lall, the same individual who made the F-21 announcement, that had appeared to suggest India-specific F-35s were on the horizon.

The next month, however, Indian media reported that the country’s Air Force had formally requested a classified briefing on the F-35. There was no official confirmation of these reports.

Lockheed Martin

An F-16C and an F-35A fly together.

Then, in March 2018, now-retired U.S. Navy Admiral Harry Harris, then head of what was called U.S. Pacific Command, re-raised the possibility of selling F-35s to India. The Pentagon has since retitled that command as U.S. Indo-Pacific Command specifically to highlight American involvement in South Asia and ties with countries in the region.

In 2018, India had also indicated that the winner of the MMRCA competition would have to also assist with the country’s development of its own indigenous stealth fighter, known presently the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Earlier in February 2019, there were separate reports that the Indians had requested a classified briefing on the United Kingdom’s Tempest stealth fighter program.

In addition, in 2018, the Indian government reportedly terminated their participation in Russia’s long-troubled Su-57 stealth fighter program, which was supposed to lead to an India specific variant. This further leaves the door open for a replacement, nearer term stealth fighter acquisition effort to fill the gap and potentially frees up the necessary funding to do so. The War Zone has long noted the possibility that the Indian Air Force might turn to the F-35 as it is the only in-production fifth generation fighter at present.

Sukhoi

A dated chart showing plans for the Su-57, previously known as the Su-50 or PAK-FA, including the Su-50E and Su-55 variants for India.

These latest official statements, though they are now removed from Lockheed Martin’s website, do indicate a renewed possibility that the company is proposing the purchase of its F-21 as a gateway to acquiring F-35s down the road. The Indian Navy is also shopping for new fighter jets for its existing and planned future aircraft carriers and could be interested in acquiring short- and vertical-takeoff and landing capable F-35Bs or carrier-focused F-35Cs, as well.

The possibility of F-35 sales to India clearly remain a sensitive issue, both in that country and in the United States. It could be even more complicated now that the Indians have purchased S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia.

America’s NATO ally Turkey is also buying S-400s, as well as F-35s, which, among other things, has provoked a major dispute with the United States, which you can read about in more detail here. The U.S. government has expressed concerns that this will give the Russians an opportunity to evaluate the Joint Strike Fighter’s capabilities against their air defense systems and otherwise gather sensitive details about the aircraft.

Vitaly Kuzmin

A transporter-erector-launcher for the S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

These concerns may become less of an issue as time goes on, but at present, the U.S. government is now looking to block F-35s deliveries to Turkey. Members of Congress might seek to do the same with regards to India.

Of course, India is also not a NATO ally, which Turkey is, and already operates a variety of Russian-made aircraft and other military hardware. The United States would be approving any F-35 sales to the Indian Air Force knowing this going in. This would be similar to the considerations that the U.S. government would have to take into account if it decided to go ahead with potential sales of Joint Strike Fighters to the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia, too.

Furthermore, American relations with India are at a relatively high point, however, and President Donald Trump has been a major advocate of increased U.S. arms sales abroad in general. The Pentagon actively pushed for the U.S. government to grant India a waiver to buy the S-400s without incurring sanctions in order to avoid upsetting ties.

With all this in mind, despite Lockheed Martin’s latest retraction, it seems increasingly clear that the United States and India are actively in discussions, at least some level, about F-35 purchases in the future. Whether or not the rebranded F-21 will actually serve as a stepping stone to buying the stealth fighters remains to be seen, but that sure seems to be the idea.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com