Swedish defense and aviation company Saab has put together a plan for their proposal for the production of the Gripen under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Make in India initiative.
Mats Palmberg, Vice President of Industrial Partnerships at Saab Aeronautics told StratPost on the sidelines of the unveiling of the latest variant of the Gripen E aircraft at Linköping in Sweden last month, “What we believe and what the message we get is that it’s the kind of aircraft that Gripen E represents that is of interest to India. That’s the key objective to have something like the Gripen. So having this milestone, having the rollout — now its real.”
This comes at a time when the U.S. government along with Lockheed Martin and Boeing have offered the F-16 and F/A-18 for production in India, respectively. All three fighter aircraft failed to make the technical shortlist for the Indian Air Force tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in April 2011, after which the French Rafale was selected L-1. Negotiations with manufacturer Dassault failed and the tender was withdrawn last year. 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.
No Assembly Kits
Instead of proposing the traditional assembly of Completely Knocked Down and Semi Knocked Down kits – the way foreign aircraft have always been ‘manufactured’ in India, Saab is broadly proposing that Indian engineers come to Sweden to build the proposed Indian Gripen aircraft, while a supply chain and greenfield Gripen manufacturing facility is set up in India. This is the proposal laid out by Saab before the Indian defense delegation currently visiting Sweden, which also includes the Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha.
“Production wise – the idea to build up capability – we will not start by providing kits – that’s the difference between how it’s traditionally done – SKD (Semi Knocked Down kits), CKD (Completely Knocked Down kits) – we will bring Indian engineers and Indian technicians, operators to build the first aircraft here in our facilities. That’s the way it’s done with the Brazilians. There’ll be an Indian production line here. As maturity is there – they are mature and secure in what they are doing, we will perform the the transfer and then the work can continue in country,” said Palmberg.
“We will train people both in India but also in Sweden to be able to take on work to design, develop, produce and maintain the aircraft in India. It’s a ‘stepped’ process because you will not learn everything from the very first day but we will try to approach it in a way that it’s not by providing kits — by providing knowledge so that we start building from the bottom of the supply chain as well as from the top of the supply chain. But there will be a lot of training in Sweden and there will need to be a lot of Swedes training Indian people in India. And then gradually we will move it up to an indigenous capability to maintain, to sustain, to further develop the Gripen product in India,” explained Palmberg.
Gripen Manufacture in India
“And in parallel to training the people, we will build up the infrastructure – the greenfield operation. But more than that, in parallel to that, we will source the tooling that is needed to bring up here. The sub assembly manufacturing by industries – start to build that up as well. And also the piece parts on the list. And we’ll support the service, MRO activities over time. We will support Indian industries during capability and capacity ramp up here and in India,” he added, saying further, “We propose to build up the industrial network so that we can secure the supply chain of different components that need to go into the program. And we have not done all of it yet, but we are actually pursuing more or less a little bit like this in Brazil,” he elaborated.
“We have not identified the site. We are looking at several different opportunities – locations. But we have not defined anything at this point in time. it’s a matter of so many – if you’re in India it’s a matter of so many parameters you have to take into consideration. Not least what the Indian government and the Indian Air Force would like to see, because it’s also a strategic asset,” clarified Palmberg.
Palmberg also thinks the Gripen Make in India proposal can dovetail with India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) program.
“I think you can run them to a certain extent at the same time but the cornerstone in building up the capability will be to work together with us on the Gripen program and then by adding on to that in cooperation with local research agencies in India and elsewhere this additional capability. That will grow over time but you have to start somewhere and we think that by the way we are approaching the issue for India you will create a good baseline to start from. We should not interpret this as an opponent in one way or another to LCA. I would see it as a complement to LCA. And I can see the LCA and Gripen could live together. There could be mutual benefits for the two if we do this in a clever way by using the same resources and using the same suppliers in certain cases so I think there could be a good match actually without one jeopardizing the other,” he said, adding, “I think from the sensor side there could be synergies if you choose Gripen and we could support you also and the LCA because the sensor is one of the things that you as a nation have decided to upgrade.”
Future Fighter Design Capability
Saab is also proposing to set up a Gripen Design Capability in India to customize the aircraft and for future upgrades, and later, joint development of future fighter aircraft.
Palmberg said, “We have a two-stream approach. We have what we can do related to Gripen and then we have this indigenous future fighter capability. To take this further we have to work this stream in parallel. And what can be done for the customization of Gripen — it could be weapon integration, it could be new sensors, it could be data links because there are unique Indian requirements on certain parts and there are other upgrades necessary all the time. And then the future fighter — work together with the Indian counterparts to define what is the best way forward on that and how can we contribute on that from Saab, from our company or our set-up in India, together with the Indian community.”
“This is how the design capability will be built. An Indian company will be there where the Gripen capability will of course reside and then it will be transferred — the design of Gripen, upgrades — when you start integrating weapons and systems that’s when you transfer the Gripen design capability. And the future design is for indigenous fighters like AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) or something else like that, which has to be on a program — a joint program — some platform has to be there,” he explained.
Value for Money
Palmberg says the operational cost of the Gripen is at most 25 percent of any other contemporary fighter aircraft. “Air power, he explained, “Basically it’s three elements. Combat performance, which is what is in the product — it’s the availability issues — how much can you have the aircraft combat ready and it is the cost to keep it at that combination. That is what gives you air power, combination of the three. It’s not only turn rate ratio or speed or — it’s a combination of the three and that’s a part of our philosophy — that’s a part of the DNA of Gripen. As we call it, the SmartFighter. And if you take all these parameters into consideration our view I that by doing that at the same cost, taking the availability and those aspects into account, you could have as much as four times as many aircraft for the same amount of money, combat ready, in flight. At any given time. It’s a general comparison. It’s the nearest comparison – others will be worse. Others will be still further away.”
Palmberg says Saab’s experience with Brazil has helped them in putting together a Make in India proposal for India. “Our cooperation with Brazil is a great source for inspiration, but then of course Brazil is Brazil and India is India. What we have to do in India has to be fitted for the Indian needs as it was for the Brazilian –- this is what we are doing in Brazil. But here are a lot of similarities. Both countries have similar ambitions and so of course there are a lot of inspiration factors between the two,” he explained.