The Saab Gripen has appeared at the Aero India show for the first time since 2011, signalling the Swedish firm’s determination to win a planned Indian single-engined fighter deal.
Speaking with journalists at the Saab stand, chief executive Hakan Bushke says his company's new Gripen E offers the best capability for India’s single-engine requirement. Moreover, Saab is willing to offer a deeply collaborative industrial partnership in-line with New Delhi’s ‘Make In India’ initiative.
“We have had production in India since the mid-1970s, but the last seven years we have grown rapidly here,” he says. “Today we do aerostructures, camouflage, and ammunition in India.”
Saab also does some coding work for Gripen E, which is still in development, in India. The aircraft flying at this year's show is a Gripen D, flown by pilots from Saab and the Swedish air force.
The Indian requirement could be for up to 100 jets, although details have yet to be firmly established.
Bushke insists the company transfers not just technology, but capability and know-how. In years past, he acknowledges that western defence firms would often provide technology, but not explain it fully. Today’s more sophisticated customers, however, mean that this practice is no longer workable.
The Indian programme will require the winner to work with a local firm to build the aircraft in country. Bushke says it is too early to specify its preferred local partner should Gripen be selected.
“We are discussing different possibilities, but we also know there processes going on in the government where they have an idea about how the selection will benefit India. We are open to that.”
Saab previously pitched the Gripen E (and a generous industrial package) for the 126 aircraft Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Gripen failed to make the shortlist in that deal, which the Dassault Rafale went on to win. The Rafale deal, however, later fell through when MMRCA was cancelled.
New Delhi will instead decide to buy 36 Rafales. The shortfall in airframes from the original MMRCA’s 126 aircraft apparently set the stage for the single-engined acquisition. In 2016, New Delhi started making enquirers for the single-engined fighter.
The other notable respondent to New Delhi is Lockheed Martin with its F-16 Block 70. The F-16 also failed to make the original MMRCA shortlist.
Bushke also touched on the Gripen Maritime, a model of which was displayed in the Saab stand - New Delhi recently issued a request for information for 57 carrier-borne fighters.
Bushke said that Saab has conducted initial research into what would be necessary to make the Gripen capable of operating from a CATOBAR (catapult takeoff but arrested recovery) aircraft carrier.
Gripen Maritime would require several modifications, including a carrier capable tail hook and strengthened landing gear - including a twin wheel nose gear.
Because Sweden has no aircraft carriers, the development of the Gripen Maritime requires an overseas customer. Such a variant could also be of use to Brazil, which operates a single flat top built originally for France. India has two STOBAR (short takeoff but arrested recovery) carriers, and is likely to build a more potent CATOBAR carrier.
Bushke says that helping to develop such a carrier variant of Gripen E would be a strong opportunity for Indian aerospace, as it would give exposure to a major development programme at an early stage.