Monday, June 29, 2009

MMRCA Part 1 - The F-16IN Super Viper

The handful of IAF pilots who got a chance to fly one of the UAE Block 60 Desert Falcons at Yelahanka in February had fantastic things to say about the aircraft. They were sold on everything from the sidestick to the the phenomenally well-designed bubble canopy, and from the gorgeous low altitude handling characteristics to the add-on IR pod. And this is quite separate from their experience of the aircraft's cockpit avionics. That's something that can scarcely be overstated. Based on my personal discussions with pilots, Defence Ministry officials and others familiar with the aircraft, here's a run down of the F-16's strengths and weaknesses in the current MMRCA competition. Remember, this is an overview of the opinion in establishment circles on the aircraft, and not merely a reiteration of facts already in the public domain.


There is simply no denying the F-16's operational record, a statistic completely unmatched by any other fighter plane flying today. The figures speak for themselves: 13 million flight hours, out of which 400,000 hours have been spent in combat. The type has flown over 100,000 combat missions and has been proven to be a true multirole fighter. The type has scored 72 air-to-air kills in the combat missions it has been flown on. This is an aspect that enjoys very serious credence within decision-making circles. The fact that the fighter is owned and operated by 24 nations is another source of reassurance. The air force also views this as a de-risking aspect of any potential purchase. The aircraft comes equipped with an AESA radar (the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80) that the IAF absolutely adores. The IAF also feels the MIL-STD-1773 data bus on the fighter will be an enormous and valuable legacy leap, and this has been a point of some discussion during internal presentations made on the MMRCA contenders. The aircraft's cockpit ergonomics has the IAF in raptures, including former chief S Krishnaswami, who flew an F-16I during a visit to Israel in 2004, and could barely stop talking about what an amazing cockpit it had. One of the F-16's principal strengths is also its unit price. At under $30-million a piece, the IAF views the F-16 as a highly capable fighter at a highly competitive purchase price. The fact that there have been 52 follow-on buys of the type are considered an indicator to the IAF that ownership/lifecycle costs are also competitive. The IAF doesn't miss the fact that the F-16 is one of only two aircraft in the sweepstakes that fits the original weight specs laid out in the original qualitiative requirement -- QRs which were substantially altered later to allow in heavy fighters. Finally, (and probably most importantly!), the F-16 has the backing of the United States government, the target of India's most ambitious current foreign policy initiatives. Needless to say, anyone who downplays that aspect, is doing so at their peril.


Let's get straight to what the IAF and Defence Ministry don't like at all about the F-16. The fact that there is a steady phase-out/replacement programme underway in the US, despite Lockheed-Martin's repeated insistence that there are four large busy production lines. The fact that the US isn't buying anymore Falcons is enough to put serious doubts into India's mind. Picking up early on this, Lockheed has managed to convincingly drive home the point that the F-16 is the logical bridge to the F-35 Lightning II, though this is viewed by the IAF as too crafty. It's almost a fake pledge, considering the gargantual clearances and procedures that would be necessary for India to be considered a buyer of a fifth generation fighter plane. Lockheed's pitch about the F-35 has therefore backfired in parts. A senior IAF officer, recently retired, says "While we were initially only doubtful, the F-35 pitch proved beyond doubt that Lockheed is trying to squeeze the last few drops out of its F-16 production lines, and the Indian requirement is too mouth-watering for them to ignore." The fact that the aircraft is operated by a lot of other countries, ironically, has a minor backlash effect as well on the IAF -- some of the top brass feel that an ambitious new purchase like the MMRCA contract, should be for a unique and exclusive aircraft, not one that is owned and operated by a huge number of other countries (including Pakistan -- the radar signature debate holds credence, incidentally), even though they do reluctantly agree that under the bonnet, the F-16IN is hardly comparable to previous variants of the same type. Finally, relations with the Obama administration have cooled considerably compared to the phonecall-a-minute diplomacy with Bush Jr, and this itself has somewhat blunted the throbbing needle pointing to Washington, even though the President has made it clear that he plans to keep up the evolving strategic dialogue with India.

Lead Photo by Lockheed-Martin / Other Photos: Shiv Aroor

Tomorrow: Part II - The Swedish Underdog


Anonymous said...

Howsoever good F16IN may be we need an aircraft that can beat F16. Its only a matter of time before Pakistani F16 get AESA upgrade and come on par with F16IN. If they get similar advanced avonics for J-10 we will be on the loosing end.

Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with F-16 is uncle can sanction every single part, unlike Gripen where only some parts of engines need uncle's approval.

So buying an aircraft you cannot use in a conflict does not make sense, no matter how technically strong it might be.

F-16 and SubparHornet are both ruled out.

Bobby said...

the unit price quoted is wrong, Mr.Shiv ...the F-16IN will cost India,around $63 million per piece...this includes all the additional expenses including infrastructure, logistics, training and tech support.

Anonymous said...

Quoting Graham Warwick [Aviation Week] from his recent article on Super Viper - "I'll be delighted to be proved wrong, but I can't see Lockheed Martin's F-16IN as the front runner in India's 126-aircraft fighter competition, even if it has been rechristened the "Super Viper" (farewell, belatedly, to the unloved Fighting Falcon moniker).

Maybe I am being ageist. I became an aviation journalist in August 1978, the same month and year that the F-16 entered service. And that seems a long time ago to me. But I'm still writing and Lockheed is still building F-16s, so maybe age is irrelevant. Certainly the fact that the F-16 is in the final years of a long production run should be irrelevant - whichever fighter India picks for local production will be built there long after the tooling has been mothballed back home.

And Lockheed Martin is certain to have raided its Lego-like box of capabilities to assemble an aircraft for India that is competitive. At Paris, F-16 program manager John Larson said the IN is basically a Block 60 with added features from the Block 50+, such as helmet-mounted cueing, and India-unique features, such as the retractable refueling probe housed in the starboard conformal tank.

The aircraft is armed with JSOWs mid-wing and SLAM-ERs inboard, but most interesting is the JASSM. That surprised a few of us at the briefing, so I asked - and it appears the stealthy conventional cruise missile hasn't been released for export to India yet...

taman said...

The question that must be asked is "Wht advantage will we get by buying F-16?". Its a 4th genration aircraft with a aero dynamic design whic is much older. It is flown by pakis thus they will know its pros and cons and so will the chinese.

Moreover , with China inducting Su-35, we will be at a significant disadvantage with F-16. We already have Mig-29 and Su30MKI why do we need a fighter which is mush less capable than above 2 fighter.

About its fight record and air to air kill, we need to see how much it has scored against competetnt air forces not Iraqi and Afgani air forces.

One might rem our MIG-21 were able to maintain 90:10 kill ratio against F-16 and F-15c(The most adavanced fighter in US armoury b4 F-22).

So therre hardly seems any logic buying it. We might as weel consider the F-18s.

anthony said...

If Uncle Sam cannot help the Indian Air Force with spare parts supply, why not reverse engineer every spare part available for local production so that there is no shortage of them in a protracted conflict with the air forces of China, Pakistan or both?

Anonymous said...

The F-16 is a great aircraft with a great history but in my humble opinion, it is time to move forward.

"3 million flight hours" and also a lot of crashes, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

Shiv, can you give the price each of these MMRCA contenders will cost. Also how much the cost can be reduced with the 50% offset. I once read HAL's chairman statement of indigenous projuction of AJT reducing the acquisition cost by 30%.

the terminator said...

Uncle Sam's aircrafts are no doubt great engineering marvels BUT what is the great idea in investing billion dollars in aircrafts that may not be used against India's enemies in times of war because Uncle Sam's foreign policies and the end-user agreements forbid the use of those aircrafts.

We do not want to make Uncle Sam happy by investing in 126 aircrafts just to make him happy. Moreover Obama, unlike Bush Jr, does not seem to be pro-India. The recent grant of a multi-billion dollar aid to Pakistan clearly shows where India stands in the overall US defense and foreign policies.

It would be extremely unwise to choose an aircraft that our enemies have. The chances are excellent for the Pakis to obtain future upgrades for whatever extras India pays through the nose as India specific.

So far US policies has not differentiated India which is a demoracy compared with that of a jihadi democracy where the military and its ISI has a lot of say.

Whenever the Pakis cry the talibans and terrorists are about to take over Pakistan, Uncle Sam would provide whatever the Pakis ask for, irrespective whether the same arms could be used against India.

India should learn to be like the US. Whatever India does should be India-specific and India-centric. India's welfare should take precedence over everything.

Kaushik said...

Shiv you have not explained all its weaknesses. The F-16 is according to some reports more prone to errors and more difficult to fly compared to a few other MMRCA planes. We will be using this plane till 2050 if we buy it. Naturally we would be needing periodic upgrades of various components in it. If Lockheed shuts down the production line and moves towards F-22, F-35 and future UCAVs then will they concentrate on evolving upgrades for thr F-16? If we want any upgrades then we will have to commission Lockheed to conduct a study on an exclusive upgrade for us. This will invariably cost a lot.
In future we might develop new weapons on our own like Astra, ADM, our version of JDAMs and even develop an engine on our own to improve the performance of the plane we buy. Will Lockheed allow us to arbitrarily replace components on the plane? At least they will demand that they should do it and demand a heavy price.
It would be a bad decision to go in for F-16 whatever fancy names Lockheed gives to it.

Anonymous said...

f16 will be bad buy

moreover this aircraft has been there for 30 years had its been refused to india for last 30 years and if india buys f16 at the time when its replacement is underway then it will be nothing but a shame

neither it brings any advantage over the fighters we currently have

Tejaswy said...

A F16 cannot win the MCRA..accept it ... Sukhoi 30 mki will kick its as any day.

Mig Rafael Gripen and Typhoon are the contenders for this MCRA

Anonymous said...

If Uncle Sam cannot help the Indian Air Force with spare parts supply, why not reverse engineer every spare part available for local production so that there is no shortage of them in a protracted conflict with the air forces of China, Pakistan or both?

anthony you moron, if we had the brains to reverse engineer every single part we wouldn't be buying foreign aircrafts in the first place!!

Anonymous said...

What is the difference between F-16Block 60 (UAE) and F-16IN?
Is there any document provided by USA comparing F-16 Block 60 and F-16IN?
They are same aircraft that USA is pitching to India. Many peoples do not know that F-16 Block 60 aircraft was developed (including AESA radar) with the money of UAE. Buyer country if select F-16 Block 60 will also have to provide money to UAE.

Anonymous said...

i don't get it, everytime i read this stupidity about "may not be used against India's enemies in times of war because Uncle Sam's foreign policies and the end-user agreements forbid the use of those aircrafts" i really get a fit!

Has anyone really seen this exciting "End User Agreemen" with really unrealistic clauses? Or are they all just babbling some crap on the web?

Abhiman said...

Hello Mr. Aroor. In my view, it may be unfortunate that IAF is considering an unfamiliar 35 year old jet, that has been "refurbished" time and again, instead of the brand new Tejas Mk.2.

With the exception of nuclear weapons, Tejas Mk.2 shall be able to carry conventional weapons on 12 weapons stations. This is the same as F-16 IN. Since it's weight will be reduced & possibly coupled with more fuel capacity, it's combat radius is also likely to be the same. As regards avionics, Tejas will also have all the latest avionics present in SU-30 MKI like Litening target pod, IRST, Elta radar, HMDS, EW suite etc. Later it may be upgraded to house an AESA radar also, which has caught the IAF's "fancy" nowadays.

Thus, it may have been a lack of foresight on the IAF's part to have no seen the Tejas metamorphasize into a full-fledged 4.5 gen. fighter, from the mere MiG-21 substitute it was meant to be in the 1980s.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Advance Fighter aircrafts are the backbone of any Air force.

Till now USA did not approve the Israeli Arrow ABM system to India.
How can you trust USA selling Advance fighter aircraft to India.