Sweden and Saab have offered to co-develop its Gallium Nitride AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar with India. In meetings held with a visiting Indian defense ministry committee this week, which included Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha — and following on from briefings in New Delhi last month — Saab officials have pitched the idea of joint development of the technology to India, if India were to select the Gripen for production in India, via Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India initiative.
Lars Tossman, Head of Saab’s Airborne Surveillance business unit told visiting Indian media last month, “We talked in India – we said if India would choose Gripen, then we would be willing to share this technology and co-develop it. We have a lot to contribute but we’re willing to share that.”
Tejas LCA Requirement
Although Saab has received a Request For Information (RFI) for the LCA Mk1A, which requires an AESA radar, besides EW and ESM suites, among other items, this offer of co-development is contingent to an agreement on a Gripen Make In India program.
“This could also be a technology used in an LCA, your home program and there could be a lot of synergies between Gripen and LCA on the sensor suite. This is something – I just said we would be willing to co-develop this with Indian local partners that India as a nation would think is the right one,” said Tossman.
“We are in a long term business and we think this is good for a joint Sweden-India Gripen program but could also be for the good use of LCA of course. This is something that India could gain from if they would choose us as the supplier,” he added.
According to Tossman, GaN AESA radars are 70 percent more effective than existing AESA radar technology. This development is different from the SELEX Galileo Raven ES-05 AESA radar developed for the Gripen. But Sweden is clear that the offer to share GaN AESA radar technology would be only be on offer if India were to agree to to produce the Gripen in India for the IAF.
“We are willing to do that if India would choose that – this would be part of a package like that. We would be willing to discuss and find a solution that would be good for all parties. But Saab was very clear with all the dialogue that we had, that we are willing to share this – transfer of technology and joint venture and joint development. I think Make in India is the way forward in India,” said Tossman, adding, “This is one of the extra benefits of choosing Gripen.”
India is currently contemplating proposals from Lockheed Martin to shift its F-16 assembly line to India, from Boeing for setting up a second F/A-18 line in India and from Saab for the setting up of a Gripen production line in India, although Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar appears to have crossed out the F-16 from this list in remarks he made to India’s Parliament, recently.
India had last year with drawn the IAF tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) after negotiations with France’s Dassault for the L1-selected Rafale failed after a tender process that began in 2007, with trials of six fighter aircraft. Besides the Gripen, F-16, F/A-18 and Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Russian MiG-35 were also tested. India is currently negotiating for an off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft as part of an announcement made by Prime Minister Modi in April 2015.
But in any case, GaN AESA technology sharing is not something anyone else is likely to offer India anytime soon.
“If Indian would choose Gripen, I don’t know what our competitors will offer India but I think this would be of interest because India would get a decisive edge in their technology level,” pointed out Tossman.
What is also of significance is Sweden’s emphasis on the absence of any export control requirements for this technology sharing proposal.
Tossman announced, “AESA Gallium Nitride ITAR-free (International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which are U.S. rules for controlling the export of defense technologies). That means we own our own technology. We decide what to do with it. So we are not dependent on any others’ approval if we can or cannot share that technology – it’s our decision,” adding, “We are now having the prototype and soon going to fly with the AESA GaN. That’s where we are and this is ITAR-free.”
First in the world
Saab is the first company to develop and deploy Gallium Nitride AESA radars in various forms.
“We were the first one in the world to announce that we have AESA GaN as you know – AESA and Gallium Nitride is the buzzword within the radar technology. And a bit more than a year ago we introduced the AESA GaN on our surface radar and we said we’re going to deliver our first AESA GaN to the customer in 2016 – that’s this year. And our competitors were really shocked. They can only delver AESA GaN in 2020-2021. I think we took the world by surprise that we are the first in the world with AESA GaN technology,” said Tossman, adding, “We are absolutely the first – nobody else – no radar developer has AESA GaN apart from us.”
The significance of this offer lies in the background of this technology. According to The Next Big Thing by Angad Singh in the January-February 2015 issue of Vayu Aerospace and Defence Review, the clever bit in existing AESA radars is the Microwave Monolithic Integrated Circuit (MMIC) – ‘a microwave circuit on a single chip’, which are based on a semiconductor compound called Gallium Arsenide.
Gallium Arsenide or GaAs ‘has around six times higher electron mobility than silicon, which allows faster operation of a transistor’, ‘a wider band gap, which allows sustained operation at higher temperatures, or results lower thermal noise in low power applications at room temperature’. “As a material therefore, it is ideally suited to the power and sensitivity requirements of radar,” writes Singh.
But GaAs-based technology has an inherent problem. “The present generation of GaAs MMICs do not perform well at extremely high temperatures,” according to Singh.
“This is where Gallium Nitride (GaN) comes in. It operates stably and reliably at much higher temperatures than comparable GaAs chips. Second, it handles high supply voltages-around five times as high as GaAs- without any issues. This makes GaN an ideal material for a power amplifier because overall, it outperforms GaAs by a factor of five in RF (Radio Frequency) power per unit chip size. The higher voltage supply has additional benefits: it simplifies onboard power conditioning, lightens cabling and reduces on board interference, not to mention helps with cooling. (As noted previously, voltage goes up, current and heat come down),” he wrote, adding, “In fact, GaN power efficiency is so high, it appears that further development of this will see chips limited not by electrical constraints but once again by available cooling.”
Singh explained to StratPost why this technology would be significant to India, saying, “There are no fighter GaN AESAs yet. The technology is immature and still quite expensive. Raytheon is testing a GaN AESA for their Patriot system. Saab is already ahead – their Giraffe radar began using GaN in 2014. So being able to ‘pick their brains’ in the absence of other options is a great opportunity. We will, of course, still have to outsource production and we will still have to design a radar around the technology and figure out LRUs (Line replaceable Units) in order to fit it into an aircraft.”
Saab has also received interest from other fighter programs for its GaN AESA technology.
“Without revealing too much but there are some X programs ongoing in this world – I will not mention TFX or KFX or KTX or anything like that but there are of course programs ongoing and of course the world is aware that we are good at radars. So there are different dialogues ongoing with different countries on should we, should we not — but I don’t reveal in detail what we do and discuss, but there is interest for the technology we have. But as I said the only interest we have is if we have a substantial long term business with that. We are not willing to just sell the technology — that is not in our interest,” said Tossman.