Lockheed's F-21: The Fighter Jet That Could Terrify China or Pakistan?
The F-16V is a big step towards keeping the U.S. fleet of warplanes relevant and able to hold their own, but will India finally purchase its own F-21 variant?
Lockheed and the Air Force have armed the F-16 jet fighter with a new suite of weapons, computing, sensors, cockpit displays and targeting technologies as part of a continued overall of the 1980s-era aircraft now being prepared to fly for at least several more decades into the future. As part of an effort to accommodate the service’s need for the aircraft, Lockheed has engineered a new F-16 “V” variant which also incorporates a new data bus, electronic warfare suite, missile warning sensors and helmet mounted cueing technology.
While aligning with an Air Force F-16 fleet-wide Service Life Extension Platform to extend the operational functionality of the aircraft into the future, the new variant represents a specific effort to tailor a special version jet for U.S. allies in need of massively upgraded fourth-generation warplane. Many are of the view that new sensors, weapons and electronics, if even integrated into an older airframe, could result in the equivalent of almost entirely new plane. The concept is to bring the decades-old, combat-tested aircraft into a modern threat arena through a series of technical adaptations, many of which can be made possible through new software programs and applications.
The F-16 “V” model, in development for several years now, has greatly informed the emerging Indian F-16 jet fighter variant called the F-21. Based upon a series of Lockheed innovations, the F-21 incorporates a few technologies unique to India, such as Electronic Warfare weapons and something called Triple Missiles Launcher Adapters which arm the aircraft with 40-percent more air-to-air weapons when compared with standard or previous F-16s.
“The F-21 is also the only fighter in the world capable of both probe/drogue and boom aerial refueling, and it has the longest service life of any competitor—12,000 flight hours,” Lockheed spokesman John Losinger told The National Interest.
The F-21s new AESA radar, Losinger explained, not only basically doubles the radar range but also draws upon recent innovations such as the Navy’s Infrared Search and Track (IRST) targeting technology. Engineered first on a Navy F/A-18, IRST is a passive, long-range sensor that can track multiple targets simultaneously in a “jamming” or electronic warfare threat environment and support precise air-to-air targeting.
A massively enhanced, upgraded and upgunned F-16 variant such as the F-21 could introduce a much more favorable strategic circumstance for India as it seeks to deter and contain China, particularly along its border area. China has for quite some time taken specific measures to further militarize its Western plateau regions along its border with India, a kind of force posturing and strategic maneuver which could be held at risk by a fleet of F-21s.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.