The Viper would be a capable replacement for MiG 21s

In less than a decade, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is going to run seriously short of fighter aircraft. The venerable MiG 21s and 23s would be retiring. These have given us stellar air backup – but airframe life is a reality. Probably by then, the IAF will have 36 Dassault Rafales but they would be too few to be considered as true replacements of the workhorse MiGs.

Now since Top Gun, a pilot and his machine have become a symbol of glamour at times – probably it is a nice picture to paint but there is economics, always.

The replacement for MiG 21s would ideally be single engine workhorses which can be pushed to the limit and which would have known abilities. The MiG 21 was really an interceptor, and it is not good economics to replace interceptors with multi-role capable and vastly costly Rafales. Fighter planes are there to serve a purpose, they have exact roles and the money spent should be commensurate with that role.

Tata Advanced Systems has signed up with Lockheed Martin to produce F16 Block 70s in India in limited quantities if they win a trial and they are up against the Swedish Saab Gripen – a capable fighter, probably one for the future.

If F16s win the trials, Lockheed Martin would move the entire production line from Texas to India. Saab is still in talks for a JV partner. If this happens it will be a major, if limited, boost for the Make in India initiative.

The F16 Block 70 is the most capable F16 ever built, far ahead of the redoubtable F16 IN Super Viper, which was a contender in the MMRCA competition. Saab JAS 39 Gripen E that is being offered to India is probably the best new-age, 4.5 generation fighter. It is packed with an electronic array and is far ahead of any F16 variant in beyond visual range warfare. Its life cycle costs and maintenance costs are lower.

But it is economics that might give it the disadvantage. The F16s on offer are at least $10 million cheaper apiece. And the Gripen uses an US engine too. Then there is the track record – while the Gripen is starting to see action, the F16 has fought across most theatres worldwide.

More than 4,570 F16s were made and over 3,200 are in service with some 27 air forces. So the manufacturers had enough time to iron out flaws and inter-operatability, although you may say that no one can plot a strategic surprise with a F16 – everyone knows it too well.

Then there is the cost issue – if India is going to be the future hub for F16 production and it will produce spare parts and train maintenance crews, then it would probably be a good deal for around $19 million each. If India will have a say in delivering spare parts for the Falcon – there may arise the vexing issue of servicing the PAF – that is still some way off.

To its credit, although the operating costs of the F16 is higher than the Gripen, it offers some unique capabilities of its own – like an unrefuelled range of around 4,500 km, the ability to fly comfortably with full load over the Himalayas etc, Gripen may be one for the future.

So unless we are close to any dramatic developments in the LCA, the F16 Block 70/72 will be the best deal and if the entire production line moves to India from Texas it would be an unprecedented offer ever made to any strategic partner.

It has the potential to give a decisive push to Make in India and create jobs across both countries – and yes the F16 was designed as a smallish, nifty workhorse and will provide the user some multi-role capability – it may be a good deal for the IAF, at least for the next couple of decades.



The post The Viper would be a capable replacement for MiG 21s appeared first on Indian Defence Update.

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