Lockheed Martin unveiled its newest member to the F-16 family – F-21, where 21 stands for 21st century. It is an enhanced version of F-16 Block 70. Though it carries a lot of identical systems that are already available on Block 70, it does have its own unique specifications- that according to Dr Vivek Lall, Vice President-Strategy and Business Development, is only available to Indian Air Force as of now.
Unlike Block 70 that has a digital cockpit with 3 MFD’s (Multi-function display) including one big 6″ x 8″ CPD (Center pedestal display), F-21 has a wide flat panel display like the one found on F-35 Lightning II and a 6″ x 8″ CPD.
F-21 Cockpit with wide flat panel display and CPD
F-21 is more lethal as it can carry more missiles using triple launcher mounted on each wing. It is able to carry up to 6 Air-to-Air missiles on each wing. Another unique feature of F-21 is its capability to carry AN/ALE-50 TDS (Towed Decoy System) on its wing pylon as well as in the tail section, contrary to Block 70 that carries it only on its wing pylon.
Triple launcher on F-21
The dorsal fin on F-21 has also being redesigned, the reason is yet to be known. Apart from these changes everything is pretty much similar to the Block 70. One of the major upgrade to F-16 Block 70/F-21 is the addition of Northrop Gruman AN/APG-83 SABR (Scalable Agile Beam Radar) AESA radar. According to Northrop, capabilities on AN/APG-83 are derived from highly successful APG-77 (F-22) and APG-88 (F-35).
AN/APG-83 SABR AESA Radar
It provides greater detection range, 20+ target tracking, high resolution SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) maps for all-weather, all-environment precision strike. It can track at least 20 targets within ±60 degrees of F-16’s nose while continuing to support a designated scan pattern. The air combat mode on APG-83 automatically acquires and tracks the first target detected within the scan volume selected by the pilot. Another distinctive feature of F-16 Block 70/F-21 is the 6″ x 9″ high resolution CPD (Center Pedestal Display) which provides critical tactical imagery to pilot. The CPD also features color moving maps, zoom functionality, and digital display of Flight Instrument Data. The Block 70 also features Auto GCAC (Ground Collision Avoidance System). At the core of F-16 Block 70/F-21 resides General Electric F-110-GE-132 Engine. It produces 32,500 pounds (14,741 kg) of thrust (142 kN). These were the specifications of F-21 aka F-16 Block 70.
Lockheed Martin had entered the mammoth MMRCA competition in 2008 with its F-16 Block 60 (F-16 IN). The Block 60 was leased from UAE Air Force for demonstration as it was the sole operator of the version. After MMRCA was scrapped, Lockheed Martin entered another MMRCA 2.0 (Unofficial Name) with its latest offering F-16 Block 70. Now at Aero India 2019 it offered their F-16 for the third time, only this time it was called F-21. Lockheed Martin seems to have adopted the Russian marketing gimmick of re-branding their product in a bid to win the contract or maybe they are trying really hard to delink the legacy F-16 carries with India’s arch enemy.
After the incident of MiG 21 shooting down F-16, it would be interesting to see how Indian Air Force reacts to the so called All New F-21.
Did IAF MiG 21 really shot down PAF F16?
Indian air force conducted a surgical air strike on 26 Feb 2019 in Balokot, in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. This was the first time the IAF had crossed LoC since 1971. On the very next day PAF responded by sending a strike package consisting of F-16 Falcon, JF-17 Thunder & Mirage 5.
IAF Radars picked up almost 22 PAF fighter jets at around 10:00 AM. Most of the fighter jets from the strike package were used for deception. They quickly turned when intercepted by Sukhoi 30 MKI and Mirage 2000. However 3 F-16’s headed towards Naushera sector of Rajouri district. Two MiG 21 Bison from 51 Squadron that took off from Srinagar Air Force Station intercepted the F-16 over Naushera sector near LoC. The first dogfight between IAF & PAF just started. One of the MiG 21 Bison was flown by Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman.
MiG 21 Bison is highly upgraded version of MiG 21 Bis and the most advanced MiG 21 currently in service.
Indian Air Force MiG 21 Bison
The MiG 21 Bison used by IAF is not an archaic cold war era fighter but is highly upgraded version capable of engaging 4th generation aircrafts. The upgrade was done by HAL in late 90’s and early 2000’s which included Phazotron Kopyo radar, an Israeli ELTA EL/L 8222 ECM (Electronic Counter Measure) pod, capability to fire HOBS R73 (±45) close combat missile and R77 BVR missiles. It also featured bubble canopy for better visibility unlike the framed ones found on older generation MiG 21. The HMTDS (Helmet Mounted Target Designation System) provided pilot to lock on to its target by just looking at it.
When F-16’s entered the Indian air space they could have fired their AIM 120 AMRAAM Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile towards the intercepting MiG 21’s. But violating air space of a sovereign nation and shooting down its fighter aircraft would have been catastrophic as it would be treated as an official act of war by India. This might be the reason why MiG 21 and F-16 ended up in a Within Visual Range (WVR) combat over Naushera.
The MiG 21 Bisons having High Off-Bore sight R73 (±45 deg) heat seaking missile combined with HMTDS (Helmet Mounted Target Designation System) proved to be a deadly combination. Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman having the target in sight went to score his kill by flying into the hostile air space despite being advised by the controller to fall back. As soon as the R73 was fired from MiG 21 another F-16, probably wingman of the targeted F-16 fired 2 AIM 120 AMRAAM radar guided missile. One of the missile hit Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG and the second missile failed to hit its target – another MiG 21 that was in the vicinity, and ended up in Indian territory.
Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman ejected over PoK and was caught by the Pakistani Army.
There are conflicting reports about F-16 being shot down by the IAF. Pakistan completely denied using their F-16’s in the air operations against India. There is no plausible evidence of F-16 being actually shot down by the MiG 21. But two important questions go unanswered.
PAF inventory of fighter jets consists of F-16, JF-17, Mirage III, Mirage 5 and F-7 (Chinese version of MiG 21). None of these air crafts except F-16 is capable of firing AIM 120. It is not compatible with any other air crafts. Then how did AIM 120 ended up on Indian soil close to the place where dogfight was fought? This proves that F-16 was used in the offensive air operation.
Pakistani PM Mr Imran Khan did a press conference at about 11:00 AM and said:
Do Hindustan ke MiGs ne Pakistan ki retaliation mein border cross kiya, unhe shoot down kiya gaya. Aur mein ye bhi aaj kehna chahta hoon ki pilots humare saath hai.
(Two Indian MiGs crossed the border in retaliation of Pakistan and were shot down. I also want to say that pilots are with us)
The official twitter handle of Pakistan Armed Forces @DGISPR tweeted that one pilot is captured and other two are in the area.
Although there is no concrete evidence there are pieces of information which when put together gives a high probability that F-16 was indeed shot down by and Indian MiG 21 Bison aircraft.
As per Indian claim only one air craft was shot down all other air crafts returned safely to their respective air bases. Only one pilot i.e Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistani army. Then who were the two other pilots that PM and @DGISPR were talking about? This curious case of the two anonymous pilots is still to be answered.
With a credible evidence of the AIM 120 and two other anonymous pilots. It can be logically assumed that the two pilots were indeed Pakistani pilots flying twin seater F16 B/D. There were reports that one of the pilot Wg Cdr Shahzaz Ud Din was lynched by the Pakistani mob who mistook him for an Indian Pilot. He was later rescued by the Pak Army and taken to hospital but succumbed to his injuries.
So if you ask- Can a MiG 21 Bison shoot down an F-16? then the answer would be- MiG 21 Bison can be threatening to an F-22 Raptor as well if engaged in close combat (given than the F-22 had already lost all its Beyond Visual Range advantage)
To answer whether or not MiG 21 shot F-16 in the Dogfight of Naushera we have to factor in a lot of data such as what was the RoE, what was the situational awareness of both the pilots, was communication intact, what offensive and defensive tactics were employed by both the pilots, how effective and experienced both the pilots were in piloting their respective air craft and so on.
The answer cannot be given with certainty, but the probability of MiG 21 shooting down F-16 seems to be high.