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

SP's MAI - - MILITARY VIEWPOINT -

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)

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