Aero India: New 'F-16 variant' for Indian Air Force unveiled, dubbed F-21

The F-21 Lockheed Martin A computer-generated image of two F-21s in Indian Air Force markings | Lockheed Martin YouTube channel

On Wednesday, US aerospace major Lockheed Martin revealed what appears to be a new variant of its venerable F-16 fighter, termed the F-21, for the Indian Air Force. A model of the F-21 was unveiled at the Aero India air show at Bengaluru, which commenced on Wednesday.

Lockheed Martin had pitched its F-16 for a contract to supply 114 fighters to the Indian Air Force in 2018. More than 4,500 F-16s have been built since the aircraft first took to the air in 1974. Previous variants of the F-16 had retained the type's name, suffixed with 'block numbers' to denote modernisation of systems or initials to denote user (e.g., F-16I of the Israeli Air Force).

Therefore, the unveiling of the F-21 designation appears intriguing. The F-16 had previously been criticised as being “too old” as it has been in service for four decades and has also been extensively used by Pakistan. The F-21 designation could help bolster Lockheed Martin's contention that it is offering India a new aircraft.

In a statement on the unveiling of the F-21, Vivek Lall, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said the "The F-21 is different, inside and out.” The F-21 has been advertised as being an aircraft configured to the needs of the Indian Air Force. Lockheed Martin emphasised that the F-21 proposal offers significant 'Make in India' opportunities.

Lockheed Martin said the "unprecedented Make in India opportunity combines 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.”

If it secures the Indian Air Force contract, Lockheed Martin will build the F-21 in collaboration with Tata Advanced Systems. In 2018, Lockheed Martin had announced Tata Advanced Systems will build wings for all F-16s in service.

Lockheed Martin had previously said an F-16 contract with the Indian Air Force would make India a key hub for the fighter's production and export. However, the company in 2018 announced that F-16 would still be built in South Carolina as another plant in Fort Worth, Texas, transitioned to building the F-35 stealth fighter.