|By Sujay Mehdudia in Bahrain and Gulshan Luthra in New Delhi||Published: October 2017|
Manama (Bahrain). Bahrain is buying 16 latest variants of Lockheed Martin F-16 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs) as part of a $3.8 billion deal which also includes upgrade of the Royal Bahraini Air Force’s existing fleet of some 20-plus older F-16 jets.
The Government-to-Government deal was announced October 17 on the second day of the three-day Bahrain International Defence Exhibition and Conference (BIDEC’17) by Royal Bahraini Air Force (RBAF) Commander Maj Gen Shaikh Hamad bin Abdulla Al Khalifa.
The deal includes an option for three more aircraft at the same price (exact price per aircraft is not disclosed).
Block 70 same as offered to India
The new aircraft is designated F-16 Block 70, the same variant which is being offered to India for indigenous production under the Government’s Make in India programme. Lockheed Martin has promised to shift its factory from Forth Worth in Texas to India if the Indian Air Force (IAF) selects it, and then make India the hub for its production and supply chain.
The aircraft for Bahrain are to be delivered from 2021 onwards, should be made in the US only, and will have the latest Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) combat radar, conformal fuel tanks for longer range, and some new sensors. It should also be capable of firing Boeing’s Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM). Details have not been disclosed.
The AESA will be from Northrop Grumman, which had first developed it for the F 16s sold to the UAE and delivered from 2004. It will be a much advanced version however this time as the technology has leapfrogged over the last decade.
Every country decides its own requirements, but still, while there should be some differences in details regarding onboard sensors, the Block 70, being the latest variant will be mostly common to India, Bahrain and any other country which buys it in the coming years. It will be the most advanced version to date of the F-16, a 4th generation aircraft made for about 40 years but with everything new except its aerodynamic design and shell.
Company officials told India Strategic (www.indiastrategic.in) that the new variant will have the most formidable of the contemporary weapon systems, and share a few technologies from the F-35, Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation combat jet being made for the US Air Force, Navy and Marines, and several countries.
Notably, Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer, had offered F-16s for the Indian MMRCA competition in 2007 to match IAF’s specifications. It was not selected in that but the company is back in the fray to sell 114 of what it now calls F-16 Block 70 under the Indian Government’s Make in India programmme, stipulating acquisition of 18 combat jets in flyaway condition and the rest to be progressively made in India in collaboration with the Tata Group.
Sweden’s Saab Gripen is the only aircraft in competition for IAF, and a Request for Information (RFI) on what capabilities and technologies they are offering is just about to be issued to the two companies. As for the Bahraini deal, RBAF would have factored its own requirements and appropriate modifications. But the platform being the same, there are bound to be many similarities between the onboard technologies of what is being offered to Bahrain and what is being offered India.
Details will differ though, and accordingly, so will their capabilities.IAF is likely to ask for the passive Infra red Combat Search and Track (IRST), a system mentioned in the 2007 MMRCA tender. AESA has a much longer range, but being active, indicates the presence of its own aircraft also in the vicinity.
Bahrain was the First to induct F 16s in the Gulf
Notably, Bahrain was the first country in the Gulf region to buy about 20 F-16s in 1990 and an additional 10 in 2000. It has been wanting more F-16s, but the US State Department cleared their sale only in September this year after some five years of wait.
Bahrain was accused of human rights violations and the Obama administration had declined to accede to the BRAF request. President Donald Trump cleared it in September 2017, and in diplomatic terms, Bahraini leaders have literally heaved a sigh of relief now with the removal of the restrictions.
RBAF pilots also have combat experience, the first time being in the 1991 Kuwait Liberation War against Iraq.
Shaikh Hamad stated that the new, and upgraded F-16s, would contribute effectively to developing the Royal Bahraini Air Force with powerful, new technologies.
Dr Shaikh Abdulla bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Bahrain Centre for Strategic, International and Energy Studies (DERASAT) – the state run think tank – and BIDEC’s Official Spokesman, and Richard Ambrose, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Company, attended the press conference where India Strategic (www.indiastrategic.in) was also present at the invitation of the Bahraini Government.
Mr Ambrose affirmed that Bahrain is the first country in the region to sign a deal for the latest variant of the aircraft with the company. He highlighted the great developments witnessed by RBAF, and pointed out that that the new aircraft will be the most modern in the region.
So far, the distinction of having the most modern F-16 has been held by the UAE Air Force, whose 60 F-16 Block 60 aircraft acquired in 2004 were the first to integrate an AESA combat radar, developed and built by war-tech giant Northrop Grumman.
As some details of the deal are yet to be filled in, company officials say that Lockheed Martin “would continue to support the government-to-government talks between the US and the Kingdom of Bahrain.” Any deal for combat systems has to be cleared by the US Departments of State and Defense.
BIDEC 2017 was held under the auspices of His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Supreme Commander, and the deal apparently has the necessary approvals.
The F-16 is the largest selling military aircraft in the world, and although its aerodynamic frame was designed some 40 years ago, everything inside from a nut and bolt to engines and avionics are contemporary, and of cutting edge technologies, company officials say.