By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 31st Aug 17
The battle lines are becoming clear in the globally watched, multi-billion dollar contest to build 100-200 single-engine fighters in India for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Business Standard learns that, on Friday, Swedish defence and aerospace major, Saab, will announce a partnership with the Adani Group to manufacture defence equipment in India, including Saab’s new Gripen E single-engine, medium fighter if that is chosen by the IAF.
On June 19, at the Paris Air Show, US defence giant Lockheed Martin had signed an agreement with Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to jointly build the F-16 Block 70 in India, if the IAF selects the fighter.
Neither the Lockheed-Tata, nor the forthcoming Saab-Adani combines have any assurance yet that their fighter would be chosen. But both combines are positioning themselves and signalling intent to New Delhi.
Just as Ratan Tata personally attended the signing of the agreement in Paris, Saab’s president and chief executive, Hakan Busckhe, is flying into Delhi from Sweden to make the announcement along with Adani executives.
The competing combines are far ahead of New Delhi, which has not yet initiated procurement by sending vendors a “request for information” (RFI) or “request for proposals” (RFP). So far, the IAF has only sent out a one-page letter to foreign aerospace vendors, asking whether they are interested in building a single-engine fighter in India with an Indian private industry partner.
According to the defence ministry’s “strategic partner” (SP) policy, which will govern this procurement, the ministry is first required to prepare a short list of foreign vendors; and one of private Indian firms that are equipped to build such an aircraft. Then, the chosen companies are required to form partnerships and prepare proposals for evaluation by New Delhi.
While there is near certainty that both Lockheed Martin with its F-16 Block 70, and Saab with its Gripen E, would be selected as foreign vendors, there is less assurance that TASL or the Adani Group would be designated as strategic partners.
After okaying the strategic partnerships, the IAF would then evaluate and choose one of the fighters.
Lockheed Martin has pitched aggressively, stating in a company release that transferring the world’s only F-16 production line from Fort Worth, Texas to India “creates new manufacturing jobs in India, and positions Indian industry at the center of the most extensive fighter aircraft supply ecosystem in the world”.
Saab projects an equal confidence, based on its argument that the Gripen E is the world’s most modern fighter and that Swedish industry would transfer technology far more generously to India than Washington would ever permit Lockheed Martin to.