F-21, Tempest: Lockheed, BAE offer new fighter dreams

Last Updated 22 February 2019, 10:48 IST

Foreign defence companies’ interest in grabbing Indian fighter jet deals remains undiminished despite their disappointment over how the ‘MMRCA’ tender for 126 fighters panned out over the past decade, ending in the much-reduced and controversial purchase of 36 Rafale fighters from France’s Dassault.

The US F-16 didn’t fly with the Indian Air Force (IAF) and New Delhi, but its maker Lockheed Martin isn’t giving up. It is now offering what it says is a “new fighter, inside and out” that is specifically built for, and in, India. It’s called the F-21.

The IAF is looking to add up to 114 new fighter jets beyond the 36 Rafale fighters. Lockheed Martin, along with the same five other companies that competed for the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) contract — Boeing (F/A-18), SAAB (Gripen), MiG Corporation (MiG 35), Eurofighter (Typhoon) and Dassault (Rafale) — are bidding to bag this deal.

The British, meanwhile, are offering India partnership in the conceptualisation and development of what they call a ‘sixth-generation’ combat aircraft. The Eurofighter Typhoon was one of two fighters that the IAF had shortlisted in the MMRCA process. The new fighter to be developed – for which the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) has formed a project team named ‘Tempest’ -- will build on the Typhoon and build in some futuristic technologies and warfighting concepts.

Lockheed Martin (LM) had marketed the F-16 as its most sold and most battle-tested fighter, with updated avionics and capabilities configured to meet Indian requirements. It was called the F-16 Block 70. But it had two main handicaps from the Indian viewpoint: one, it had an airframe developed in the 1970s; two, Pakistan has F-16s. To overcome these handicaps, LM is offering “a new aircraft with a 12,000-hour service life airframe”, Vivek Lall, LM’s vice president of strategy and business development, told Deccan Herald. Crucially, it’s not called the F-16. The 21 in F-21 stands for “21st Century”, Lall said.

While the US will not offer India its fifth-gen fighter the F-35, the F-21 is an “advanced, scalable fighter” that derives from the F-16 heritage and draws on technologies developed for the F-35 and F-22 aircraft, Lall added, but said he could not divulge any more detail about the new fighter at the moment as the final configuration will be known only after the government puts out its Request for Proposal (RFP) for the contract. A look at the mock-up revealed new sensors and weapon stations.

If LM wins the contract for 114 fighters, the F-21 will be built in India. “We will build the aircraft in accordance with the strategic partnership model required by the government and we already have Tata Advanced Systems as our partner,” Lall said.

The British proposal is an interesting one. The ‘Tempest’ project is only a concept at this time. “We are not saying, this is the aircraft, these are the specifications, are you interested in buying it. We are looking for partnerships to build it, and the partner country can choose the elements of the aircraft, and choose what it will bring to the project,” former British air chief Sir Andrew Pulford said during an exclusive briefing for this newspaper.

Tempest is a project to study options for what will replace Britain’s Eurofighter Typhoon post-2035. The UK MoD has formed a ‘Team Tempest’ comprising Anglo-American defence major BAE Systems, aero-engine maker Rolls Royce, European missile-maker MBDA and the British arm of Italian giant Leonardo (formerly Finmeccanica) – with an aim to retain Britain’s capability to make combat air systems. Yet, Britain realises that it cannot make next-gen fighter aircraft all by itself.

The British MoD has committed to spending two billion pounds to conceptualise and develop the aircraft and generate a Technology Demonstrator, with a flying prototype by 2023. It wants to finalise partner-countries this year.
Britain had earlier joined hands with France to develop the next-gen fighter, but with Brexit impending, France and Germany teamed up to develop their own ‘European’ aircraft.

India has struggled to get its hands on a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, such as the F-35, but has not succeeded so far. The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project, which was to follow the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), has remained on the drawing board for years, awaiting approval for design and development, and is not expected to make its first flight until at least 2032; India’s bid to join the Russian fifth-gen fighter project (PAK-FA) at a late stage fell through last year after years of negotiations; and the US will not sell India the F-35. Meanwhile, China has built its own fifth-generation fighter, the Chengdu J-20.

While stealth, supersonic cruise capability and enhanced digital technologies characterise fifth-gen fighters, the ‘Tempest’ is conceptualised to go beyond these as a sixth-gen combat aircraft. Notably, it is expected to be a single aircraft design that would allow both manned and unmanned operation, would incorporate Artificial Intelligence technologies, feature loitering missiles and directed energy weapons, and be able to fly as part of and control a swarm of unmanned combat aircraft.

“There are no specifications for the Tempest at this time and so we cannot say whether it can go along with India’s AMCA programme. But the door is open to talk collaboration, and India can see if the ‘Tempest’ plays to those requirements or not”, Sir Andrew said.

(Published 20 February 2019, 16:23 IST)

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