By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Oct 16
The contest to supply the Indian Air Force (IAF) a single-engine, medium fighter is currently playing out as a two-horse race. US giant, Lockheed Martin, is the Goliath looking to slay the David that is Swedish firm, Saab.
Lockheed Martin, which has offered to shift its F-16 production line to India, is the world’s biggest defence firm, with US $46.1 billion dollars in sales last year and an order backlog of almost $100 billion. Saab, which has offered its latest fighter, the Gripen E, appears a relative minnow, with $3 billion in sales last year, and an order book of $12.9 billion.
Yet, Saab is an extraordinarily accomplished minnow. Visitors to the Swedish Air Force Museum near Saab’s aerospace facility at Linkoping, two hours by train from Stockholm, encounter an aerospace tradition that has, since 1926, kept pace with the world’s best.
The museum displays the J-29 “Flying Barrel”, the first “swept-wing” fighter after World War II; the Draken, Europe’s first supersonic fighter, which pioneered the “double delta wing”, and the Viggen, the first mainstream fighter to feature the canard --- now common in high-performance fighters. India came close to buying the Viggen but Washington, which provided the engines, blocked the sale in 1978. The IAF bought the Anglo-French Jaguar instead, which still remains in service.
As Saab’s marketing team never tires of telling Indians, this excellence in defence production stemmed from Sweden’s traditional strategic independence --- similar to India’s. After remaining neutral through World War II, Sweden declined to join NATO in 1949, choosing to cater for its own defence against Russia.
Responsible for its own defence, Sweden leveraged an existing scientific and engineering culture to develop an advanced aerospace and defence industry. In the late 1950s, the Swedish Air Force was the world’s fourth largest, fielding over 1,000 frontline aircraft.
Anticipating that a Soviet invasion would quickly render its airfields unusable, the Swedish Air Force insisted on light, versatile fighters that could operate from short stretches of highway, refuelling and rearming in minutes before re-joining battle.
This is the tradition that shapes the JAS-39 Gripen E, Saab’s latest and most advanced fighter that is expected to make its first flight by end-2016. Unlike Dassault’s Rafale, which endured tortuous years of wait before Egypt became its first export customer, the Gripen E has been selected by Brazil even before its first flight. In winning the Brazil tender, the Gripen E beat the Rafale, and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
In sheer aerodynamic performance, the Gripen E will probably be a match for the F-16 Block 70. While the former has still to fly, its predecessor, the Gripen D, was extensively evaluated by the IAF --- mainly to its satisfaction --- as part of the 2007 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender. The Gripen E, incorporating a new General Electric F-414 engine; is larger, heavier and more powerful than the Gripen D, which had an older F-404 power plant.
Even the avionics are comparable. The F-16’s Northrop Grumman APG-83 airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radar is a proven, highly effective combat system. But the Gripen E could score with more sophisticated data networks that bring together inputs from multiple sensors --- such as airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), satellites and a fighter’s own AESA radar --- fusing data to present a comprehensive picture of the air battle in a cockpit arrangement that is amongst the world’s most pilot-friendly.
With combat performance similar, the choice between the F-16 and Gripen E could boil down, as IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha said last month, to two factors --- procurement and operating cost, and technology transfer.
In procurement cost, Lockheed Martin would score by transferring a fully amortised assembly line from Fort Worth, Texas to India. Further, by creating a vendor and sub-vendor eco-system in India to sustain a global inventory of 3,200 F-16s, spares and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) would be cheaper. Aviation analysts like IHS Jane’s 360 assess the Gripen’s “operating cost per hour” to be lower than any comparable fighter, but that advantage would be nullified by the scale of the F-16 production business.
Currently, there are less than a hundred Gripen E on order: 60 by Sweden, and 36 by Brazil. But Saab hopes more will follow, and there could also be interest in an aircraft carrier version of the fighter --- the Sea Gripen.
Saab’s strategy, therefore, hinges on a technology-based deal that Lockheed Martin simply cannot offer because of US export control laws. Linking its offer with the development of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Saab has offered to help the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) fast-track the Tejas Mark 1A. The four improvements required to the current Tejas — better combat radar, more lethal weapons, dedicated electronic warfare capability and better maintainability --- are well within Saab’s capabilities. Sweetening the deal, Saab has offered to partner ADA in developing India’s planned next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
New Delhi’s choices, therefore, are: on the one hand, the F-16’s lower price and the opportunity to become an industrial supplier to a 3,200-strong global F-16 fleet. On the other hand, Saab’s technology partnership, unencumbered by a restrictive export control regime, which could smoothen the induction of the LCA and AMCA.
Theoretically Washington could veto the Gripen bid, just as it had the Viggen. The Gripen E flies with US engines and other aircraft systems. Yet, that is highly unlikely, given the closeness of US-India relations, and Washington’s frequent declarations that it would like to see India’s military built up into a more powerful regional force.
Finally, Saab offers a less controversial route to a contract that could encounter political attack. In the Indian psyche, the F-16 remains strongly linked with Pakistan. Washington cleared a tranche of F-16 Block 50/52 in the last one year --- a procurement that was eventually blocked by the US Congress, through the denial of funding. The appetite of the government to buck this trend remains uncertain.
(Disclosure: the correspondent visited Saab’s facilities in Sweden at the invitation of the company)