While the govt talks up the IAF's need for a light fighter, Maharashtra CM, Devendra Fadnavis, in a Gripen fighter in Sweden on Wednesday
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Apr 15
On April 10th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had requested France for 36 Rafale fighters, built by Dassault Aviation, to meet the Indian Air Force (IAF) need for 126 fighters. Since then speculation is rising about a second global vendor that might fill the gap, building light fighters in India, alongside an Indian partner.
In interviews with state-run broadcaster, Doordarshan, and with the daily newspaper, Hindustan Times, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar explicitly stated the IAF urgently needs light fighters, a requirement the Rafale does not meet.
Likening light, medium and heavy fighters to a scooter, car and bus respectively, Parrikar told Hindustan Times it would be wasteful to deploy a big, heavy Rafale where a smaller fighter would do. “Two people can travel in a bus, but that would be wasting resources”, he said.
For short-range, short-duration missions that are currently performed by the single-engine MiG-21, Parrikar told Doordarshan the IAF needs a light fighter, not the Rafale.
“Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. Tejas [Light Combat Aircraft] is a replacement for MiG-21. Or, if we build some other fighter under “Make in India”, that is also possible”, said Parrikar.
New Delhi’s growing and explicitly expressed interest in light fighters has been noted by Swedish company, Saab, which had offered its highly regarded JAS 39 Gripen E light fighter in response to the tender eventually won by Dassault’s Rafale.
Even as Parrikar talked up the need for a light fighter, Maharashtra’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister Devendra Fadnavis on Wednesday visited Saab’s facility in Sweden, where the Gripen NG fighter is built. From there he tweeted a photo of himself in the cockpit of a Gripen and a message saying: “It was great to be at the aerospace & defence company SAAB at Linkoping, Sweden. Promised a defence manufacturing policy in Maharashtra soon.”
Top Saab officials tell Business Standard that, even before Fadnavis, the chief ministers of UP and Gujarat --- then Narendra Modi --- had held discussions with Saab.
A top Saab official told Business Standard on condition of anonymity: “If we are approached by the government of India, Saab would be happy to partner the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) or an Indian private company in not just manufacturing fighters in India, but in developing real capabilities for building a single-engine fighter for the IAF.”
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has not yet approached Saab directly, speaking only through the media.
However, in 2012-13, the DRDO had solicited Saab’s help in co-developing and manufacturing the Tejas Mark II in India. Besides the similarities between the Tejas and the Gripen --- both single-engine, light fighters --- Saab had upgraded the Gripen D to the Gripen NG by replacing the General Electric F-404 engine with the more powerful GE F-414.
That is exactly what the DRDO plans to do for upgrading Tejas Mark I to Mark II specifications.
In 2012, DRDO chief VK Saraswat had sent Saab a “Request for Information”, followed in January 2013 with a “Request for Proposal” inviting Saab to jointly audit the Tejas design with DRDO.
As Business Standard reported last year (June 17, 2014, “Rafale contract elusive, Eurofighter and Saab remain hopeful”) Saab proposed an 8-10 month long audit of the Tejas design, after which a fresh design would be jointly finalised and a manufacturing line established with Saab’s expertise.
Saab had proposed as far back as 2011 to co-develop the Tejas Mark II and roll it out from a new manufacturing line within five years. Saab had then demanded 51 per cent ownership of the joint venture company that built the new Tejas.
Saab says, in June 2013, when a joint design contract seemed imminent, a new DRDO chief, Dr Avinash Chander, took charge. He told Saab a foreign partner for co-developing the Tejas Mark II could be selected only through an international tender.
Now, Saab officials say they will insist on a government-to-government (G2G) arrangement, if they are to assist India in developing and manufacturing a light fighter in India. Under the UPA government, this would have been a deal breaker. Mr Parrikar, however, stated on Monday: “These important decisions need to be taken at government-to-government levels.”
The Saab Gripen has so far proved more popular in the international market than the Rafale. While Rafale has not yet found a single overseas buyer (Egypt and India have expressed interest), the South African, Czech, Hungarian, Thailand and the United Kingdom have acquired the Gripen. In addition, the Brazilian, Polish and Slovakian air forces have expressed interest.