Following the release of RFIs by the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) for acquiring hundreds of fighter aircraft, several global aerospace companies have flocked to the country with extremely competitive offers. While the air force’s RFI states a need for several hundred single-engine fighters, the navy’s RFI has been floated in an effort to acquire at least three squadrons of multi-role carrier-borne fighter (MRCBF) aircraft.
One of the strongest offers on the block has been made by Swedish based Saab AB, a pioneer in aerospace and defence technology. The company has offered to India its latest and smartest Gripen platform.
While the company is offering its single-engine multi-role Gripen – E fighter for the IAF, the navy is to be soon offered the underdevelopment Gripen – M, a marinised version of the Gripen – E aircraft.
Saab has been catering to the needs of the Indian forces for over four decades now. The company’s tryst with the Indian market began in the late 60’s, when the Indian army inducted Saab’s Carl Gustav recoilless rifles. On the aerospace front, the company has provided several critical subsystems to Indigenous products such as LCA Tejas and ALH Rudra.
Gripen has been on offer to India since its first flight in 1997 as a replacement to the MiG-21 aircraft. The aircraft was at the forefront in IAF’s ambitious MMRCA tender but eventually withered out as the air force decided to opt exclusively for twin-engine fighters.
Gripen since its introduction has been developed under one of the most modular development cycles, which have effectively redefined the aircraft’s capabilities in every single stage. From the introductory Gripen – A/B version to the latest Gripen – E/F version, Saab has incorporated some of the most revolutionary technology onboard the aircraft.
The Gripen – E version effectively has emerged as one of the most advanced fourth generation fighter, which can level-off against the latest fifth generation stealth enabled fighters.
Gripen – E features a revolutionary avionics system and a powerful engine which guarantees improved range and greater payload capability. Revolutionary AESA radar, IRST systems, advanced EW and communication systems have made Gripen-E, a true ‘smart fighter’.
Ulf Nilsson, Head of Business Area Aeronautics at Saab, under whom the Gripen has evolved said “Gripen – E is an affordable airpower option with a balanced design to beat the cost curve. Gripen – E is More Power, More Capable and More Gripen”.
Modular design followed by Saab has made Gripen one of the most affordable yet an extremely capable multi-role platform. Saab claims that the aircraft’s flight hour cost is far superior to its competitors and also projects an extremely competitive availability rate.
Life of Soldiers had an hands on experience of the Gripen – E fighter and further interacted with Jonas Jakobsson, Experimental Test Pilot with Saab, during Aero India – 2017. “Gripen remains to be one of the most reliable products ever flown. The aircraft is always developed for the future and development is in the DNA of the aircraft. Gripen – E is the most advanced fighter and is capable of countering even fifth generation fighter.” he said. He summed up Gripen’s capabilities saying “Get Gripen and you get unmatched air space supremacy.”
Saab has been making a strong pitch for its Gripen – M aircraft with the Indian Navy which is scouting for an able MRCBF aircraft. Gripen – M which was formally known the Sea Gripen has been developed around the Gripen – E fighter. A marinised version of its predecessor, Gripen – M will feature a strengthened fuselage and several upgrades to enable the aircraft to operate from the decks of an aircraft carrier.
Gripen – M will have high levels of commonality with other Gripen versions. Featuring extremely small footprint, a full squadron of the aircraft can easily deploy on even medium sized carriers such as INS Vikramaditya. Even though the aircraft is in a conceptual stage, Saab remains extremely confident of flying the aircraft at the shortest possible time frame if the navy air interest in it. Saab claims that as the Gripen has been designed to enable STOL operations, minute modifications will enable it to seamlessly operate from STOBAR carriers.
Solidifying the company’s offer apart from Gripen’s proven capabilities is Saab’s readiness to transfer technology to Indian partners in an effort to help the country realise it’s ‘Make in India’ dreams. The company has on several occasions assured that the ToT offer being made will come with ‘no strings attached’, meaning there will be no rider conditions which would ultimately hamper India’s ‘self reliance’ mission.
Saab envisions offering India not just a fighter but the true capabilities to design, develop and manufacture a fighter. The company promises to set-up a thriving aerospace ecosystem if India opts for the Gripen platform.
Robert Hewson, Head of Communications at Saab, spoke with Life of Soldiers in detail about the Make in India offer at Aero India – 2017. He said “What we want to offer India is not just an outdated production line but the capabilities and the technology to design, develop and then manufacture a fighter. If Gripen – E is chosen, technology will flow without strings and the aircraft will be made in India, for India by our Indian partners. Our partnership teams have already met several Indian companies and are assessing their capabilities.”
With this partnership, Saab envisions to setup the world’s most modern facility in India which will accelerate India’s ability to design, develop, manufacture, modify and enhance fighter aircraft. This facility will include dedicated aircraft design centres, production facilities for aero structures and avionics systems, final assembly line, establishments for test and verification and MRO bases for maintenance of aircraft.
Jan Widerstrom, CMD, Saab India Technologies speaking about the company’s offer to India said “Saab is offering an industrial facility that will be centre-of-gravity for the Make-in-India Gripen. It is an unrivalled offer that will set new standards in aeronautical engineering excellence for decades to come, should India procure Gripen.”
Further elaborating about the ToT offer, he said “We are offering real technology transfer for Indian built combat aircraft of the future with new generation technology. We are offering 100% technology transfer, full system and software control, under the Make In India vision. Saab is committed to India and will deliver the best industrial cooperation and technology transfer over the life of the programme.”
With this it is evident that Saab has gained an extra mile in India’s hunt for able fighters with its proven Gripen platform and a lucrative ToT offer under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The surging Indo-Sweden ties are further fortifying the company’s grip over the RFIs.
However, Gripen is levelled against Lockheed Martin’s F-16, which remains to be the most manufactured fighter aircraft. Lockheed Martin has also offered to transfer the production line to India making it the sole manufacturer and maintainer of the Falcon. But, much depends on the newly installed Trump administration which is banking on ‘America First’ policy.
With the MoD gearing up to announce the much awaited Strategic Partnership model in the coming days, the race to supply India with fighters will drastically intensify. Even though Gripen has a clear lead in the air force’s RFI, the aircraft will have to struggle hard for the Navy’s RFI.
But the lucrative ToT offer, the proven capabilities of the aircraft, lowest life cycle cost and a promised higher availability rate, may eventually pave the way for the aircraft to operate in Indian colours in the future.
© Karthik Kakoor