The Indian Air Force lies at the cusp of a major technological evolution today. Within the next decade and a half the IAF will be transiting from a 32 squadron force flying 3rd & 4th generation fighters to a 42-45 squadron force built around a core of approximately 500 4+ & 4.5 generation combat aircraft. This will entail a massive technological shift as the IAF metamorphoses into a highly interlinked force of Fighters, AWACS. ELINT aircraft and Ground based Radar all communicating with each other via secure satellite links. This will be a force with access to a world class navigation system in the shape of the IRNSS with American GPS & Russian GLONASS access also possible.
Within the Aircraft themselves there will be major changes as the force shifts from vintage aircraft like the Mig 21 which pilots often had to fly by the “seat of their pants” to intelligent robotic platforms running on Fly by wire systems like the Rafale & the PAKFA. The “Air Warrior” of the future will have access to information which will be streamed into his HMD (Helmet mounted display) from AESA Radar, IRST & Targeting pods mounted on his Aircraft while also being fed information by AWACS and other ELINT platforms.
The key to this transformation should be the eventual induction of 150-200 indigenous LCA & another 200-300 foreign 4.5/4+ gen single engine modern combat aircraft .These Foreign jets as envisaged by Prime Minister Modi will be built under his flagship “Make in India” programme. This is a follow on from the 126 aircraft MMRCA program started in 2001. That program was pared down to procurement of only 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft leaving the IAF with a clear dearth of modern combat Aircraft. The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 combat squadrons and a healthy level of 44 required for a two front war with China & Pakistan together. This level was only reached in the mid 1980’s with Mirage & Mig 29 inductions during the Rajiv Gandhi era (he took an inordinate interest in the IAF, possibly as he was a pilot himself). That momentum was lost due to dithering by succeeding governments and has since dropped to 32 combat squadrons today. This is further predicted to drop by another 5-6 squadrons by 2020-22 as the remnants of the MIG-21 & MIG-27 squadrons are disbanded. A further 12-15 squadrons of MIRAGE 2000, JAGUAR & MIG-29 aircraft will also be decommissioned by 2030-35.This poses a grave challenge as the IAF not only has to replace nearly 20 squadrons of combat aircraft by 2030 but also has to add another 15 squadrons to regain strength required for a two front conflict. Essentially every combat aircraft in the IAF today with the exception of the Sukhoi-30 will have to be replaced by 2035. The Sukhois will also be nearly 30+ years old then and shall be on the verge of replacement themselves.
The two frontrunners in competition to supply the IAF with 200-300 single engine jets are the Swedish JAS-39 GRIPEN NG & the American F-16 Blk 70.Both jets are world beaters in their own right and come backed by enormous technical expertise & diplomatic clout from their parent nations. However that’s where the comparisons stop because in the air these two are as different as an archer & a swordsman.
We need to realize the Gripen with a 98kN engine is a light combat aircraft with total empty and full load take off weights of 8000Kg & 16500 Kgs respectively- add in an internal fuel weight of 3500 Kgs and the total combat payload carried should be in the region of 5tons.The F-16 blk 70 is a full blown medium air superiority platform and its GEF110-132A power plant provides it with a massive 143kN thrust allowing a F016 to take off with 21772kgs maximum weight , factoring in an empty weight of 9208kg along with an internal fuel load of 2685kgs. Another 1500kgs in two conformal fuel tanks means an F-16 can still carry nearly 8.5tonnes of weapons. On the Payload and thrust parameters the Blk 70 scores high above the Gripen.
A fighter’s eyes and ears are its radar & sensors and here the F-16 blk 70 comes in with an unspecified Infrared search system and an AN/APG-80 AESA radar. The GRIPEN comes in with a SELEX RAVEN AESA radar and an IRST also from SELEX. Much of the data about these sensors remains classified, what is known is that the RAVEN comes on a steerable rotating swash plate mounting that helps widen the field of view for the aircraft. Data from the f16.net forum indicates that both AESA radars should be able to track a RCS 10 m2 target at 195km ranges, which if true, puts them at par.Both Aircraft can also host a variety of Targeting pods which by themselves can increase the situational awareness
exponentially. The Problem the F-16 faces here is that most of the cutting edge tech it boasts of cannot be exported to India without India having ratified the CISMOA agreement with the United States. Due to this parameter alone I would say that while the Gripen scores above the F-16 on this case, it is unclear what restrictions if any would apply on American Sourced tech being used in the Gripen offered to India. If in the future we learn that CISMOA has been waived off for any future F-16 procurement, it would make a strong case for the F-16.The Gripen however, has a strong case in that its software architecture is completely open and programmable to suit any weapons or sensor suite that the IAF may want whereas the F-16 would restrict us to using American approved Sensors and weapons. This makes this portion of this Comparison tilt heavily towards the Gripen.
Another thing that heavily influences a Fighter aircrafts effectiveness is usability and maintenance. The JAS 39 Gripen was designed from the Ground up to be a Cheap effective fighter that would be capable of taking off from snow covered roads with as little as 800Mtrs of clear space . The F-16 is not known to deliver this kind of performance or take off from snowed in runways/roads. A study by Jane’s defence in 2012 proved that the Gripen had the lowest cost per flight hour with 4700$/hour. The F-16 came in second with an operational cost of over $7000/hr. This is a parameter that should be taken very seriously by the Indian Air force as an extra operating cost of 2300$/hr for a fleet of 300 aircraft can add up to an extra cost of 172 Mil$/annum- considering 250hours flown/year. Over a typical 40 year life of a combat aircraft that translates into an extra fuel bill of 6.9 billion dollars. This brings us to another interesting proposition: if we do buy the Block 70 and 300 jets are delivered by 2030, we shall be operating these jets till the 2060’s at the very minimum. At that point the basic F-16 design will be nearly a century old, even with upgrades that would be ridiculous. Think of it like the IAF operating an upgraded AESA Equipped Missile firing De Havilland Vampire today! The Gripen is a much newer aircraft with the first Gripen having entered operational service in late 1997, It is also a much more modern and scalable design that may be upgraded into a semi-stealth/stealth platform in the coming years (Saab & Brazil are reportedly already partnering on such an endeavor).
A major weapons purchase is nearly never a purely technical buy. With over 4500 units in active service with 26 air forces around the world today the F-16 has actively participated in every major military conflict the US has fought in the last 35yrs and has provided exceptional service every time. The combat experience that has gone into improving the F-16 into the Block 70 on offer to the IAF is unparalleled. Lockheed Martin has promised to shift its entire production line to India from Fort Worth Texas if the F-16 Blk 70 is chosen as the future Indian Single engine MRCA. This factory built in 1941 to supply the US war effort with four assembly lines is a true aviation mega structure and will help grow the fledgling aircraft industry of India manifold. Selecting the F-16Blk 70 would also mean India would become the sole provider of sales and service for all 4500 F-16’s around the world for as long as these jets remain in service. The Indian factory will fulfil any future export orders for the F-16 that Lockheed Martin wins as well. Lockheed is currently reported to be in talks to supply Colombia with 20 jets, Taiwan has put forward a request for upto 66 jets & an inquiry from Bangladesh for 37 jets may have also been received. An F-16 plant, if finalized, can potentially bring India as much as 15$Billion in export revenue.
The F-16 also comes backed by the diplomatic clout that America wields as Earth’s pre-eminent economic & military power; much of this power is now directed at Vayusena Bhavan to ensure the F-16 wins this competition. The Gripen has nothing to match the F-16 on these counts, except a commitment by SAAB to help develop the next iteration of India’s light combat Aircraft. If this were a purely technical comparison, I would say the GRIPEN having the best mix of abilities & future development prospects is the better choice for India .However, factoring in the geopolitical & financial benefits a F-16 line can bring to India, the Block 70 looks to be the better choice for the Himalayan Eagle’s new wings.
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