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What India Could Do with the F-16: Turn It

into a 'Viper'

Sebastien Roblin

June 24, 2017


On June 19, Lockheed Martin announced in advance of a U.S. visit by Indian prime minister
Narendra Modi that it had reached a joint-venture agreement with Tata Advanced Systems to
move its F-16 production line to India. This deal would be contingent on the Indian Air Force
selecting the F-16 to fulfill a new requirement for one hundred to 250 new single-engine fighters,
which could total up to $13 to $15 billion. If the agreement does come throughthe major
competitor remains the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen E fighterthen India would become the
exclusive producer of an advanced new Block 70 variant of the iconic fighter jet, and might also
export the type to countries such as Bahrain, Colombia and Indonesia.

Entering service in 1978, the F-16 Fighting Falconnow popularly known as the Viperis a
lightweight, short-range multirole fighter renowned for its agility. More than three thousand of
the type will serve in the air forces of twenty-seven countries this year. The Viper has seen
plenty of action over the decades, and is credited with shooting down seventy-six aircraft in air-
to-air combat in exchange for one or two losses by one count.

While there are larger twin-engine fighter jets like the F-15 Eagle that can go faster and farther
and carry heavier combat loads, the Viper is more maneuverable and can still perform the
majority of combat missions just as well at a lower price. For example, by one accounting an F-
16 costs $22,000 per flight hour, compared to $42,000 for the F-15.

India previously turned down the F-16 for its medium-fighter competition in favor of a small
order for thirty-six French Rafale fighters. Lets take a look at why the new proposed joint
venture could mark a dramatic turnabout for the worlds second most populous nation.

This would be the first U.S.-designed jet fighter to enter Indian service.

India has a large fleet of aging and accident-prone MiG-21 and MiG-27 jet fighters that will soon
be leaving service. New domestically built Tejas light fighters have consistently disappointed
with their subpar performance, and thus are not being considered as a full replacement for the

Until the Rafale order, Indias fighters have come from Russia or the Soviet Unionand prior to
that from the United Kingdom. These were supplemented by two domestically built jets, the
Marut and Tejas. The United States was not a supplier to India during the Cold War, choosing
instead to furnish advanced fighters like the F-104 Starfighter to Indias archrival, Pakistan.

Relations between New Delhi and Washington have now gone from the frigid lows of the Cold
WarNixon once menaced India with a carrier task forceto warm, following U.S. mediation
of the Kargil conflict and the striking of a civilian nuclear-cooperation agreement. Today the
Indian military operates U.S.-made P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol planes as well as C-17
Globemaster and C-130J Hercules transports. In fact, Tata and Lockheed are already jointly
producing spare parts for the Hercules.

U.S. diplomats and arms dealers are also doing their best to maintain the much older alliance
with Pakistan. However, differences over the insurgency in Afghanistan, drone strikes and state-
sponsored terrorism have strained the relationship significantly.

The F-16 deal is another sign of a deepening U.S.-India alliance, which was already evident in a
major logistical agreement struck in 2016 permitting the two countries to share military bases. In
fact, this drift in U.S. foreign policy follows the logic of the United States confrontation with
China. China and India have perceived one another as a strategic threat since a border war in
1962, and Beijing has developed a close alliance with Pakistan as means of encircling India.
Conversely, Washington now sees partnership with India as a means of hedging against Chinas
military dominance in Asia.

This obviously brings tension to the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. However, whenever the flow of
American arms to Pakistan wanes, Islamabad can count on Beijing to fill the gap: the latest
fighter type to enter Pakistani service is the JF-17 Thunder, a joint Pakistani-Chinese

The jets will be built in India, not the United States.

Washington is not the only capital where economic nationalism is in fashion: domestic
production in India was as a requirement for the single-engine jet competition, as part of Modis
Made-in-India initiative. Lockheed claims that the American F-16 production line will instead be
repurposed to producing F-35s anyway, and that parts suppliers in the United States would still
benefit from the deal. India would thus become the sole supplier of newly assembled F-16s, and
have the right to export them as well. The proposed F-16 agreement was first green-lit under the
Obama administration, though Lockheed claims that the Trump administration has been briefed
and has yet to object.

India already has a similar Russian-made equivalent to the F-16.

The Indian Air Force and Navy already operate over a hundred upgraded MiG-29SMTs and
navalized MiG-29Ks, respectively. These are maneuverable, lightweight short-range tactical
fighters with a similar role to the F-16though notable differences include that the MiG-29 has
twin engines and was not designed from the outset as a fly-by-wire plane. Nonetheless, why
would India pursue another fourth-generation light fighter?

The fact is that even the upgraded MiG-29s come with a service life of four thousand flight
hours. Meanwhile, the new F-16s are being offered with twelve thousand flight hours. And India
may not be eager to invest in more MiG-29s, as they have suffered from problems common to
many pieces of Russian hardwareeven though the aircraft came at a favorable sticker price,
maintenance costs, serviceability rates and after-sale service have been poor. In particular, the
MiG-29 has suffered from stress fractures in the airframe and defective engines, causing a large
percentage of the fleet to be withdrawn from service.

Repeated instances of India being burned in terms of cost overruns, quality control and
maintenance contracts on weapons systems, such as the T-90 tank or the aircraft carrier Admiral
Gorshkov, may have spurred New Delhi to consider an alternative to its traditional arms supplier.
Of course, some critics of the F-16 deal fear that it might push Russia to pursue additional arms
deals with Pakistan instead.

Pakistan also flies a lot of F-16s.

Remember that part about the United States supplying tons of arms to Pakistan? Pakistan
received its first F-16A and B Fighting Falcons in 1983followed by an additional F-16Cs and
Ds, bringing the current total to seventy-six. These F-16s constitute Pakistans top air-superiority
fighter. Furthermore, the F-16 would likely serve as one of Pakistans top nuclear-strike
platforms in the event of a full-scale war with India.

The Pakistani F-16s scored a number of kills against Soviet fighters over Afghanistan during the
eighties, but havent met Indian fighters in battle, though they reportedly did face off against
Indian MiG-29s during the 1999 Kargil conflict. However, the fighter pilots on both sides were
not authorized to fire on each other, to avoid escalating the scope of that conflict.

At any rate, if India starts flying F-16s as welleven if they are of a different modelthis will
pose some obvious risks of misidentification for both sides. While it is easy to dismiss this
danger by insisting that IFF technology and proper management of the battle space will keep
track of which side the aircraft belong to, historically plenty of warplanes have been shot down
due to misidentification by friendly forceseven when they werent flying the same type of

On the other hand, moving the F-16 production line to India could allow New Delhi to cut off the
supply of vital spare parts for Pakistani F-16s. However, in reality many F-16 components are
already built by different sub-manufacturers dispersed across the globe, so its not clear how
effective an Indian F-16 embargo would prove.

Some critics are questioning whether India will benefit from another fourth-generation

Though the F-16 has an excellent track record, and the Block 70 version would be substantially
modernized, some Indian defense analysts have expressed disappointment that India is acquiring
another fourth-generation fighter dating back to the 1970s. The fact that it could easily take three
to five years or more for the production line to start producing F-16s also places the deal in

To be fair, even the U.S. Air Force will keep hundreds of F-16s in service for some time, but
fourth-generation fighters are at a steep disadvantage against stealth fighters. However, fifth-
generation fighters are both extremely expensive and politically difficult to obtain. India is
already working on its own HAL AMCA stealth fighter, and is a partner in the Russian Pak FA
T-50 stealth-fighter programthough this has been beset with major problems and delays, much
to the Indian militarys dissatisfaction.

Another criticism is that India may receive little in terms of technology transfer from the F-16
deal, due to the fact that many of the more advanced components, such as the engines, computer
systems and data links, are proprietary to numerous companies other than Lockheed.

So what would be new in the Indian Viper?

The upgrades for the new Block 70 model F-16s are considerable. Most importantly, the F-16
would receive a new AN/APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. This is a
major improvement over the APG-68 radars currently in use on U.S. Air Force F-16Cs and Ds,
as an AESA system can track more targets at greater range, has much higher resolution, and is
harder to detect and jam in return. This is one of the more significant advantages a fourth-
generation fighter can have while stalking another. The APG-83 is reportedly effective for
engaging aerial targets up to seventy miles away, and can generate high-resolution images of
targets on the ground.

The AESA radar will feeds its data into an enhanced avionics package, which includes a new
pilot display, faster computer processors and super-high-speed data links, granting the ability to
fuse sensor data from friendly platforms.

Another feature of the Block 70 that was recently incorporated on U.S. Air Force F-16 is an
Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System, which will correct an Vipers course upwards
whenever a crash seems imminent. This could save the pilots life in the event of a blackout
during a high-G maneuver, or if the pilot loses track of his or her position during a dogfighta
leading cause of fatal jet fighter accidents.

Another upgrade is the addition of Conformal Fuel Tanks bolted onto the F-16 airframe. The
base F-16C model has combat radius of only about three hundred mileswhich means it usually
has to carry underwing drop tanks to get very far without depending on aerial refueling.
However, drop tanks create additional drag, take up weapons hardpoints and increase an
airplanes radar signature. A conformal fuel tank, by contrast, is designed to hug the airframe so
as to have minimal impact on drag and radar cross section as well as freeing up hardpoints. The
conformal tanks designed for the F-16 bulge out from the upper mid-fuselage like muscled
shoulders, and can carry an add an extra three thousand pounds of fuel on top of the seven
thousand pounds a Viper can normally carry.

The new Indian F-16s would also come off the factory floor with another feature added to late-
model F-16s: helmet-mounted sights that can cue targets for High Off Bore Sight missiles such
as the AIM-9X. Basically, this means that Viper pilots no longer needs to have their plane
pointed at the enemy to shoot at it. The pilot need only train his helmet-mounted sight at an
enemy he can see, and the AIM-9X can zoom off at a potentially sharp angle to intercept it.

Its less clear what the Block 70s armament will comprise Beyond Visual Range warfare, which
is expected to predominate in future aerial clashes now that missiles can target aircraft from
dozens of miles away. Will India order the AIM-120 missiles used by the U.S. Air Force and its
allies, or will the Block 70 F-16 be compatible with the domestic Astra long-range missiles? The
Lockheed Martin website for the Block 70 emphasizes weapons integration of country-
unique weapons, which implies an Indian F-16 might be adapted to locally preferred systems.

In any event, it remains to be seen whether the Indian military will choose the F-16 Block 70
over the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen-E, which is generally considered to be more advanced and
cheaper to operate per flight hour, but is also significantly more expensive up front. Politically,
there are both advantages and disadvantages to striking a deal with a global power such as the
United States. The arrangement could strengthen India-U.S. defense tiesbut New Delhi might
also fear it could be subject to shifting political winds due to the relationship with Pakistan.

Regardless, the fact that India is seriously considering becoming the sole assembler of the F-16
going forwardan airplane type that will remain in service in the United States and across the
world for many more yearsis a good indicator as to the current drift of U.S. foreign policy in

Sbastien Roblin holds a masters degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and
served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education,
editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security
and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Three U.S. Air National Guard F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation in October 2010.
Flickr / Lockheed Martin