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Indian Air Chief visiting Saab
September 18, 2019
The Saab JAS-39 Gripen production site at Linköping, Sweden. Photo credit: Saab

Indian Air Chief visiting Saab

The Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Arup Raha is currently visiting Sweden, specifically Linköping where the Saab JAS-39 Gripen is being produced.

With the Rafale deal set to be finalized this month and the IAF still in need of new fighter aircraft to rectify its quantitative drop, Saab is looking to emerge as the answer.

Under the ‘Make in India’ program, Saab is offering India to produce the JAS-39E/F Gripen (also known as the Gripen Next Generation or NG) under license.

The IAF on the other hand is looking to loop Saab into the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas, which is envisaged to replace the IAF’s legacy MiG-21s and form the backbone of its lightweight fighter fleet. It is hoped that Saab would provide technical expertise and assistance for the forthcoming Tejas Mk-II, which will be equipped with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar.

Comment and Analysis

The Indian Air Force (IAF) may be at a crossroads. Saab’s primary incentive is to acquire a major buyer for the JAS-39E/F, and India would be the perfect fit.

Not only is the IAF seen as a major prospective buyer (in that it can acquire a large number of Gripens), but India’s manufacturing base makes commercial offsets an attractive proposition for Saab.

Saab can basically use India to scale the Gripen’s adoption and to build a cost-competitive supply-channel for spare parts, maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO), and of course production. For Saab, the benefits extend beyond simply India, they could be scaled to prospective customers globally by enabling Saab to offer much more competitive Gripen packages.

The sticking point to this plan is the IAF and its current willingness to persist with the Tejas program. The IAF wants Saab’s expertise, which in turn can be used to develop the Tejas Mk-2 – i.e. a Gripen competitor. In the best case scenario, the Tejas Mk-2 would close the IAF’s lightweight fighter requirement, but the worst case scenario would be to see the Tejas Mk-2 being exported to Saab’s clientele.

It will be interesting to see how this is managed by both sides. Between the Tejas and Gripen, one program would simply have to go, and Saab understands that its maximum interim and long-term gains come from selling the Gripen to India.

For India, closing the Tejas would mean settling for a program that has served as a technology demonstrator, albeit an incredibly valuable one considering the achievements India made in terms of aircraft design and manufacturing.

Granted, the IAF could induct both platforms, but operating a large number of diverse aircraft, and that too of multiple origins, is a massive cost and liability in its own right.