Saab Gripen for the Indian Air Force?
On May 31 this year, the Indian Ministry of Defence had invited the global aerospace majors Saab and Rosoboronexport to make presentations on their proposal or offer for a light-weight combat aircraft to replace the MiG-21 fleet of the IAF
The JAS 39 Gripen light-weight fighter aircraft from Saab of Sweden was one of the six contenders in the race for the contract for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Developed by Saab Military Aircraft, the Gripen is a fourthgeneration light-weight, multi-role combat aircraft that features a delta-canard configuration coupled with a digital fly-by-wire control system and has a very low radar signature. It is powered by a modified version of the proven F-404J turbofan engine, developed and produced by Volvo Glygmotor. The aircraft has a powerful search and tracking radar that allows ‘look-down/shoot-down’ capability, track-while-scan capability for multiple targets and target assessment available to the pilot in real time. The cockpit has a digital instrument panel with multi-mode and multi-function displays that allows push-button mission package selection. At the time of its launch, the Gripen was the most advanced combat aircraft in its generation with its cost of operation amongst the lowest. Unfortunately, the Gripen did not find a place on the final list of the MMRCA tender.
However, with the cancellation of the MMRCA tender in April this year and the formal announcement by the Indian Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar at the end of May that the number of Rafale combat jets that India would buy from Dassault Aviation of France would be restricted to 36, just enough to equip two squadrons, global aerospace majors engaged in the manufacture of combat aircraft once again perceive fresh business opportunities in India that may be worth billions of dollars. The decision to scale down procurement of the Rafale jets to 36 is driven in all probability by the somewhat exorbitant initial as well as life-cycle cost of the platform that the nation would not be able to afford. The government has therefore embarked on the search for less expensive and consequently more affordable options.
While Airbus Defence and Space of Europe (formerly EADS) is ready to offer the Eurofighter Typhoon, the US aerospace major Lockheed Martin Corporation is prepared to come forward again to field the F-16 Fighting Falcon. Russian aerospace companies are hoping to receive enhanced orders for the Su-30MKI as also are ready with the latest version of the MiG-29, but it is Saab that appears to be in the lead and is forging ahead with the offer of the Gripen NG apart from other initiatives. Saab has apparently been in dialogue with the Government of Maharashtra to set up a manufacturing base in the state and enter into collaborative agreement with Indian companies for the manufacture of fighter aircraft with assurance of transfer of technology.
In fact on May 31 this year, the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) had invited the global aerospace major Saab and the Russian company Rosoboronexport to make presentations on their proposal or offer for a light-weight combat aircraft to replace the MiG21 fleet of the IAF, something for which the abortive MMRCA tender was floated in the first place. Given the tardy pace at which the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas project has been progressing so far, it appears that the MoD is exploring the option of collaboration with a reputed global aerospace major to speed up the design, development and production of Tejas Mk-II which the IAF proposes to induct in larger numbers. Saab would also have an opportunity to manufacture the Gripen in India for the IAF as also for the export market. Apart from the fact that these projects would be in conformity with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ theme, these options would appear attractive to the IAF also as by the end of the current decade, the combat fleet of the IAF would be deficient by as many as 15 squadrons or 270 platforms. Given the worsening security situation in the region and especially the rising level of threat from India’s adversaries, restoring the combat potential of the IAF acquires a high degree of urgency.
On June 10, 2015, the Defence Minister of Sweden Peter Hultqvist, who is on a visit to India, met with the Indian Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar. During the meeting they discussed a range of issues of mutual interest among which offer by Sweden to collaborate with India on the production of light combat aircraft in the country as part of the ‘Make in India’ initiative figured prominently. As expected, Sweden is likely to insist on a governmentto-government transaction if Saab is to enter into any collaboration with India either to develop and manufacturing a light-weight combat aircraft or produce the Gripen in the country.
The visit of the Minister of Defence of Sweden to India is indeed well timed as it could not have come at a more opportune moment.
AIR MARSHAL B.K. PANDEY (RETD)