As India seeks, once again, to buy a new fighter aircraft, one of the contenders is the Lockheed F-16 which has been renamed the F-21 for the Indian market. The plane is a proven combat aircraft because it has been used effectively by the Israelis, Turkey, NATO, the UAE, and, of course, the United States. Lockheed is also sweetening the deal by offering to transfer the production line to India and to then allow Indian produced F-21s to be marketed around the world. This would, of course, be a major win for the Modi government’s Make in India policy.
Yet, for a number of reasons, questions can be raised whether the F-21 is a good fit for India.
The biggest issue with the aircraft is not the quality of the plane because, as mentioned earlier, it has a proven combat record and the version that India will buy and build has been dubbed as an “F-16 on steroids.” The plane has modern avionics and the aircraft has been re-engineered to be far more capable than earlier versions of the plane—particularly some of the early models that Pakistan flies. In India, however, weapons purchases are invariably clouded by allegations of corruption or favoritism. In the case of the Indian Air Force (IAF), such allegations go back as far as the procurement of the Mirage-2000 in the 1980s. At that point in time the IAF leaked to the press that it had not asked for the Mirage and this led to allegations that there were political and financial motives that led to the purchase.
The funny part of this is that the Mirage 2000 has turned out to be a stalwart performer for the IAF. It was used very effectively in Kargil to deliver munitions, provide electronic countermeasures against Pakistani shoulder-fired surface to air missiles, and the French reportedly even allowed the IAF to rewire the planes to carry nuclear weapons. Again, in the attack on Balakot, it was the Mirages that proved to be reliable and effective strike aircraft. Such allegations are not just restricted to the Mirage.
A former Russian ambassador to India joked that with each successive Indian government the “weight” of the wings of the Sukhoi increased. Then, of course, there was the controversy about the Rafale that was used by the opposition, albeit unsuccessfully, to try and embarrass the government. For several reasons, the F-21 could lead to some ugly accusations being raised.
The problem becomes even more acute if, given the glacial pace at which the Indian arms procurement takes place, the deal only comes through in two to three years. That would put it in the range to become a political hot potato for the 2024 elections. One only has to go back in history to see how the Bofors howitzer become an albatross around the neck of Rajiv Gandhi’s government. The opposition, led by the witty Atal Behari Vajpayee, was able to successfully tar the Gandhi government as a corrupt one because of the controversy surrounding the Bofors deal.
Then there is a problem caused in the minds of the Indian public by Pakistan’s possession of the F-16. Especially after Balakot, and the subsequent India- Pakistan aerial dogfight, the Indian public, and the IAF have a very negative opinion of the aircraft. Changing its name does not remove the stigma attached to the airplane and the negative images it produces in the minds of the Indian public.
The production dilemma
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