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