'Make in India' pitch to sell Swedish fighter for air force

The uncertainty over India's negotiations with France for the Rafale fighter aircraft and the air force's desperation to stall the depletion of its combat fleet have prompted global aviation majors to dovetail their planes into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Make in India" campaign.

By Sujan Dutta
  • Published 27.03.16
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Mikael OlssonA prototype of the Gripen E in the hangar of the company's Linkoping assembly plant. Pictures by Sujan Dutta

March 26: The uncertainty over India's negotiations with France for the Rafale fighter aircraft and the air force's desperation to stall the depletion of its combat fleet have prompted global aviation majors to dovetail their planes into Prime Minister Narendra Modi's "Make in India" campaign.

After US companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Swedish firm Saab has now said that it is willing to transfer technology and set up a new company with an Indian partner to make its latest fighter aircraft, the Gripen E, in India. The Gripen E is being built block-by-block and is slated to roll out of its production assembly in May this year.

"Sweden is looking for a market. India is looking for technology. The Gripen E can be the frontline multi-role fighter made in India," said Saab's technical director and product manager for the aircraft, Gideon Sines, to a group of Indian journalists visiting the manufacturing facilities in Sweden. The visit was sponsored by Saab.

Versions of the F-16 Fighting Falcon (made by Lockheed Martin), the F/A-E/F Super Hornet (made by Boeing) and the Gripen C/D (made by Saab) did not make it through the trials conducted by the Indian Air Force for its tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) since 2007. The Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale were "downselected". Rafale beat the Typhoon by quoting a lower price.

The tender was cancelled last year after Prime Minister Modi announced in Paris that India will purchase 36 Rafale aircraft through a government-to-government contract with France. The negotiations are now stalled again on the issue of price.

France hopes that a team it is scheduled to send to New Delhi later this week will be able to resuscitate the negotiations. France has asked for about Rs 20,000 crore more for the 36 Rafales than the Indian establishment is willing to pay.

Workers at Saab's plant in Linkoping, Sweden, are currently assembling two Gripen E aircraft for the Swedish Air Force before the company executes its export orders for the Brazilian Air Force. Brazil has contracted 36 Gripen E. As part of the contract, Saab is also training Brazilian air force technicians who are being hosted in Linkoping. This is the kind of model that Sweden hopes will be accepted by India.

"We don't have all the answers but we have a plan. We have the Brazilian experience," said Magnus Falk, Saab's vice-president and head of business development. Saab has proposed a joint venture company with an Indian private firm. The joint venture is tentatively named "Indian National Aircraft Company" (INAC).

Mikael Olsson

The makers of the Gripen E say the aircraft is a qualitative improvement over the plane that competed (and lost) for the aborted Indian MMRCA contract.

Company officials permitted photography of a prototype of the Gripen E that is in its hangar in Linkoping - only from its front (nose) end.

Unlike the Gripen C/D variant that was fielded in the trials in India, the Gripen E has a wider undercarriage that folds into its double-delta wings (and not its fuselage). This affords, says test pilot Mikael Olsson, more space for fuel and, therefore, a longer range. The Gripen E also has a retractable probe for mid-air refuelling - a requirement asked for by the Indian Air Force.

The IAF is in the process of acquiring the LCA Tejas - said to be home-grown - that is of the same class as the Gripen in the sense that both are single-engined aircraft. The IAF has contracted 120 LCA Tejas with the GE 404 (US-origin) engine while the Gripen E has a more powerful GE 414 engine tailored for it.

"We have an open architecture system for the Gripen E," says Ulf Nilsson, head of Saab's aeronautics division. "You can integrate your weapons on your system like you do apps on a mobile phone".

Part of the reason for Saab's enthusiasm with the Gripen E for India is New Delhi's decision to order the single-engined Tejas in larger numbers despite the Light Combat Aircraft yet to receive a fully operational certificate.

The Tejas was showcased in a fire power demonstration named "Exercise Iron Fist" in Rajasthan last weekend. The demonstration was witnessed by President Pranab Mukherjee and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of bombs dropped by it failed to hit a static ground target. IAF officials said that was for no fault of the aircraft or its pilot but because there was probably something wrong with its Israeli-origin "smart bomb kit".

In Sweden, the IAF's issues over pricing of its choice of the twin-engined Rafale has brought hope for Saab. The Gripen E incorporates US-origin equipment (like the engines and the ejection seat). This makes the IAF a little wary. But Saab officials say that their company's "footprint" in India is so large that the country has enough guarantees.

"We already have tie-ups with the Tatas and the Mahindras spanning joint ventures and projects in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Belgaum and Delhi. Saab Aerostructures (a subsidiary) has been there for 10 years", says Ulf Nilsson, head of the aeronautics business division.

Company officials say that defence contracts take time to mature. "Governments change, defence ministers change," said Richard Smith, head of Gripen's marketing and sales.

The Brazilian contract, signed last year, was 22 years in the making.

(Disclosure: Swedish firm Saab sponsored a visit by a group of Indian journalists to some of its weapons-manufacturing facilities in Sweden. This correspondent of The Telegraph was in the group).