Gripen, F-16, compete in MMRCA re-run - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 15 August 2016

Gripen, F-16, compete in MMRCA re-run

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 16th Aug 16

Since April 2011, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) shortlisted the Eurofighter and Rafale for purchase, Swedish company Saab has believed its JAS-39 Gripen fighter was unfairly eliminated from that globally watched tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Similarly, US aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin, which had offered an F-16 Block 50/52 variant called the Super Viper, feels hard done by. Yet, one of these companies might still have the last laugh after the eventual MMRCA winner, Dassault of France, failed to conclude a contract for the Rafale.

The Gripen NG and the F-16 Block 70 --- improved variants of the fighters Saab and Lockheed Martin had earlier offered --- are frontrunners in a truncated replay of the MMRCA contest. Boeing, meanwhile, has repeated its offer of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. All three offers are couched in the rubric of “Make in India”.

Of the original six vendors in the MMRCA race, only Russia’s RAC MiG has faded away. Dassault continues negotiating with New Delhi, albeit only for 36 Rafales under a government-to-government sale. Eurofighter remains poised on the sidelines; offering to step in should negotiations with Dassault collapse.

A call to battle

In April 2015, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended three years of tortuous negotiations with Dassault, compensating the French vendor with an order for 36 fighters, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar realised a light fighter would still be needed to replace the IAF’s retiring MiGs and bolster plummeting fighter numbers.

On April 13, 2015, Parrikar stated on Doordarshan TV: “Rafale is not a replacement for MiG-21. LCA [Light Combat Aircraft] Tejas is a replacement for MiG-21. Or, if we build some other fighter under “Make in India”… another single engine [fighter] in India, which is possible, that could be a replacement for the MiG-21.”

For Saab and Lockheed Martin, which both had single-engine, light fighters to offer, this was a call to battle. And the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which runs the LCA programme, realised the Tejas had to come good quickly.

The IAF and ADA wasted no time in accelerating Tejas’ induction. Since the Tejas Mark II requires the time-consuming integration of a new engine, it was agreed to induct a stopgap Tejas Mark IA. This would have four improvements over the Mark I: active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to boost air combat capability; an externally-carried self-protection jammer (SPJ) to blind enemy radar; mid-air refuelling to extend its range, and tidied-up internals for easier maintenance. The IAF undertook to order at least 80 Tejas Mark IA fighters.

Saab makes its play

Meanwhile, Saab prepared a three-point plan that piggybacks on the Tejas. This has not been formally proposed, but its strategy is evident from the informal offers made.

First, Saab has offered to manufacture and assemble the Gripen NG in India, partnering an Indian firm. Ministry insiders say Saab hopes to roll out the first fighter in 36 months; ramping up quickly to 18 fighters per year. The Gripen NG’s cost will depend upon how much indigenisation India demands. Building more components and sub-systems indigenously would naturally raise the cost.

Second, Saab has offered to partner ADA in developing the Tejas Mark IA, focusing on the four improvements needed. The Gripen NG’s vaunted Selex Galileo Raven ES-05 AESA radar would be manufactured in India for the Tejas Mark IA and the Gripen NG. With a 100-degree sweep, this scans a wider cone than any other current radar.

Third, Saab would help ADA develop its planned fifth-generation (Gen-5) fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). In this, Saab’s capability is untested, since Europe has no Gen-5 fighter programme. Instead, Saab is part of a European consortium working on an unmanned stealth aircraft, called the nEUROn.

Significantly, Saab is silent on the Tejas Mark II --- which would directly compete with the Gripen NG. Saab’s vision clearly involves bypassing the Tejas Mark II --- and moving from the Mark IA, to the Gripen NG, to the AMCA.

Jan Widerstrom, Saab India chief, says on the Saab website: “The offer includes setting up of a full manufacturing facility; transfer of state-of-the-art technology; setting up of an aerospace eco-system in India; creation of a local supplier base of ancillary systems; employment of a well-trained Indian workforce. We would train engineers in Sweden, as we’re doing with Brazilian engineers right now for the Brazilian Gripen program. We see ourselves as a catalyst. We will provide India with cutting-edge technology which will energise India’s aerospace ecosystem.”

A usually reticent Stockholm has thrown its weight behind Saab. Sweden-India discussions centre on a joint working group (JWG) that meets annually, in accordance with a 2009 Indo-Swedish defence cooperation agreement. After the last JWG meeting in Delhi on September 29-30, the two national security advisors met in October in the first Indo-Swedish “strategic dialogue”. Ramming home the message, Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Lofven, travelled to India in February for the “Make in India” exhibition in Mumbai.

According to a joint release after his meeting with Modi: “The two prime ministers… agreed that under the rubric of Make in India, cooperation possibilities between their respective defence industries could be identified and taken forward appropriately, including in the field of aviation.”

On June 10, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, travelled to Saab’s production facility in Linkoping, Sweden, and test flew the Gripen NG at a Swedish air base. There is talk of IAF test pilots travelling to Sweden to check out the fighter.

While the IAF apparently likes the Gripen NG, it does not want to disturb the Rafale negotiations, which it considers top priority. While not a Gen-5 fighter, the Gripen NG’s data link --- a key element in modern air combat --- is reputedly the world’s most advanced. Its avionics are built of Gallium Nitride, which delivers superior performance over conventional Gallium Arsenide avionics. The Gripen NG carries diverse weaponry from various countries, including the French Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), reputedly the world’s most advanced, with an estimated range of about 150 kilometres. Independent researcher IHS Jane’s, finds the Gripen the cheapest contemporary fighter to operate.

F-16 Block 70 offer

Going toe-to-toe with Saab, a characteristically aggressive Lockheed Martin is pushing hard on its offer, made through the Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), to shift its F-16 production line from Fort Worth, Texas to India.

Over the preceding four decades, 4,588 F-16s have been built, in 138 versions, for 27 user countries, the sheer size of that production run making it a cheap and affordable fighter. But now F-16 orders have dried up, and Lockheed Martin wants Forth Worth fully turned over to building the thousands of F-35 Lightening II joint strike fighters (JSFs) on order.

“An Indian F-16 order clearly serves multiple US interests. It would revitalise the F-16 production chain, which is about to shut down; sell India the 1970s production line instead of just junking it; allow Fort Worth to focus on building F-35s; and strengthen defence ties with New Delhi”, notes a senior IAF officer.

At a media briefing in New Delhi last Friday, Lockheed Martin’s Randy Howard made it clear that production would be shifted to India only if the IAF buys the F-16.

Howard talked up the “next generation avionics” of the Block 70 version of the F-16, but IAF officials are sceptical. Its APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), while a reputed AESA radar, has been built by Northrop Grumman since 2014 for the US and Taiwanese air forces. Nor is the “high speed data network” and the “upgraded core computer” that Howard advertised noticeably superior to what is on the older Block 50/52. Analysts wonder what changes justify a new block number.

Within the IAF, which has for the last four decades, focused its training and tactics on fighting Pakistan F-16s, there is entrenched resistance to buying that fighter. Further, the air marshals are certain Washington would never allow Lockheed Martin to offer the kind of holistic proposal and technology transfer that Saab has offered.

Assuaging these concerns, Ben Schwartz, who heads aerospace and defence for the US-India Business Council says: “The F-16 offers would come in as FMS deals with unprecedented technology transfer and Make-in-India characteristics.  A lot of work has gone into evaluating the level of indigenization – more so than in any other case that people can recall.” Backing him up, a senior Pentagon official says: “In US-India negotiations today, you have to throw away all the assumptions of the past about what Washington will allow and what it will deny. Don’t assume anything is off the table.”

Boeing officials, who have separately offered to build the heavy, twin-engine F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in India, say their “Make in India” beats Lockheed Martin’s. “If India wants an indigenous aerospace eco-system, it makes no sense to buy an old production line, with all its inefficiencies. Boeing is offering a fighter that will remain in service through the 2040s, and possibly the 2050s, far longer than the F-16, and offering to build it on a brand new Indian production line”, says one official.

Boeing’s most powerful argument for the Super Hornet is perhaps its utility for the Indian Navy. After worrying questions from the Comptroller and Auditor General over the Russian MiG-29K’s ability to operate off a carrier, there is talk of the need to hedge India’s bets for the second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal.

With three offers in hand, the defence ministry has not yet taken the initiative, nor issued a single “request for information” (RFI) or “request for proposals” (RFP). New Delhi has not divulged whether it wants competitive tendering, or a government-to-government strategic acquisition. The long-promised policy for nominating Indian “strategic partners (SP) remains in limbo, leaving foreign vendors with little idea about who could be their Indian partner.

Says a senior executive from one of the vendor companies: “It may well emerge that New Delhi is using discussions with Saab, Lockheed and Boeing as a stalking horse for the Rafale negotiation, putting pressure on Dassault with the range of options that India has. Until there is clarity, we can only continue groping in the dark.”


Gripen NG
F-16 Block 70

Estimated to be about 25 per cent costlier than F-16
Large numbers already built make F-16 highly affordable

Combat experience
New fighter, not yet combat tested
Extensively flown in combat, proven worldwide over decades

Design maturity
New aircraft, at early stage of design life
1970s design, reaching end of design life

Aerodynamic performance
Highly agile fighter, with new F-414 engine
Early model F-16s were superbly agile, but Block 70 fighters, with conformal fuel tanks, are less aerodynamic

Combat performance
State-of-the-art cockpit, cutting-edge Gallium Nitride (GaN) avionics, superbly networked through two-way data links, fused combat picture reduces pilot workload
Older cockpit design, less integrated network environment, older one-way data links, older Gallium Arsenide avionics

Combat availability
Low turn-around time, low flying cost, generates more sorties per day
Fewer sorties, but each one carries heavier weapons package

Will set up brand new manufacturing plant in India, but no experience in transferring production
Will transfer old F-16 plant from Fort Worth, Texas; but has experience of building 4,500 F-16s, and of transferring production abroad

Weapons suite
Integrated with weaponry from multiple countries, including US missiles and Meteor long-range missile
Integrated with mainly US weaponry and missiles. Will require source codes for integrating other missiles

Short take-off and landing capability allows mission turnaround even on highways. Can be modified easily into Sea Gripen for aircraft carrier operations
Cannot operate from highways, requires ground support kit, no scope for aircraft carrier operations

Technology transfer
Likely to be easier, not governed by restricting export control regime. Committed to transfer AESA radar technology
Will be at discretion of US government, complex US export control laws. Unlikely to transfer AESA radar technology


  1. Gallium nitride is used in the new AESA Radar

  2. I think India should go ahead with the Gripen which will be a huge boost for increasing our technology levels in defense and aircraft building.

  3. Why is the GOI and IAF pursuing F16/F18/Gripen when there is the LCA? Increase the production capacity of the LCA Mk1A and reduce the development time for the LCA Mk2. How much cutting edge R&D is required in just fitting a new engine (GE F414) into a modified airframe? If the LCA Mk2 was ready today no one would be talking about the Gripen NG. If ADA / HAL cannot produce more than 8 - 16 LCA per year then setup another production line with an Indian private entity like Tata / Reliance. India needs the LCA in numbers to increase the IAF's squadrons and strengthen India's nascent aerospace industry. We need to focus on our home grown tech if we ever want to catch up with the dragon next door. Stop this MMRCA circus.

  4. I think the government will do what is judiciously necessary to bring up the Air Force strength at economical prices. They also need to keep in mind the decisions already previously.

    Today there is news that HAL is sitting on advances worth 51,000 crore. What is this ?
    If it is true, then no wonder IAF is huffing and puffing.

  5. Tejas is fixed. The only way to delay the tejas now is if saab or boeing offered an engine.

  6. Ajai, I love reading your posts and respect your support for an Indian MIC when it comes to armored vehicles and artillery. However it's disappointing that when it comes to SAAB your support for the indigenous MIC evaporates. SAAB NG will be an LCA killer. The restrictions on the F414 and other global components will still apply. Also isn't the source code a requirement to integrate Astra, RD-xx etc onto the SAAB?

    There seems to be a theme here ....

  7. It makes no sense to pursue Gripen unless LCA MkII is cancelled and it is unlikely either of them will make the cut. I think the frontrunner will be F-18's as they are twin engined and can be used for both IAF and IN, so they are better fit for mmrca. besides iaf has a penchant for payload and aesa so whichever of the 3 fulfils or tops the chart will be the winner. also the price will the key differentiating factor.

  8. India is the only unfortunate nation on the planet that:

    1) Has one-sixth of humanity, but yet can't win medals at the Olympics.

    2) Has a Sports ministry, but is hard-pressed to win medals at the Olympics.

    3) Is an IT Superpower, but still courts Mark Zuckerberg to bring the internet to the masses (thankfully, citizen activism had that nixed).

    ... and finally ...

    4) Has an indigenous Tejas fighter jet, but still wants to import fighters.

    I'm appalled at the utter nonsensical and idiotic decision to revive that MMRCA boondoggle all over again ! I thought that was over and done away with !

  9. @ Ajai Shukls : Kindly compare LCA Tejas with Gripen ? Why buy Gripen and kill the LCA program which I feel has achieved commendably in terms of indigenous technologies.

    Many modern air frame with state of the art avionics/ DRDO avionics should be considered instead of F-16 e.g. Eurofighter

    India should plan for 20 squadrons of LCA Tejas MK II , with production ramped upto 40 aircrafts per year and 10 squadrons of Eurofighters/ any other propoerly selected air frame to tkae care of obsolete Jaguars and Mirages

  10. I am very disappointed at the speed of work as planes like this should be rolling out in bigger numbers. Try to fit GE 414 engine try to get the enhanced performance engines as with enhanced performance of 116-120 KN much higher T/W ratio can be achieved and it can carry much larger fuel load without significantly reducing the performance , the advantage is much higher range , combat radius and flying time . The assembly line must be automatic with robots doing most of the welding , riveting and drilling of holes. The pieces be indevadually fabricated in a modular desiegn and then just assemble in the shop. Once assembled get the plane to the adjacent shade and do the complete build up thus optimizing the floor space required for newer lot of planes. Devlop an assembly line of components so that uninterrupted supply is always there and an inventory team manages this. Fitting 414 engine is not that difficult as dimensions are almost similar it weighs about 50 kg. Heavier but produces tremendous performance that Evan with dry thrust with half the fuel burnt out and most of the payload accurately delivered the T/W would still be very high to get the plane to super cruise at 1.3 Mach with dry thrust alone as per my experience roughly as I do not have accurate data. I always believed in compitation as that puts pressure to excel. Same assembly line be repeated in private sector and see who performs better.

    The fabrication of products need to be done to the highest standards , and I would recommend someone to spend a week in Intel Fab where they make chips and the extraordinary work culture and crave for excellence.

    I personally believe ADA is understaffed and they need to be well staffed with every stage monitored by someone and all modifications must run simultaneously.they have to change the frame immediately to mate it with GE 414 engines and air intakes have to be wide enough to accommodate for increased air intakes of the new engine. They should use titanium leading edges with sharper edges and have two angles rudder elevator like YF 23 to take advantage of winglets to improve the performance.

    There is no use in having zoo of planes like Rafale , Grippen , f16 , F 18 and Evan F 35 as well as lot of planes from Russian stable with poor built and servicibility as it becomes very expensive to buy , upgrade and maintain them and same thing can be done cost effectively by five hundred tejas with 80-100 F 35 combo and spend all the resources to devlop AMCA.


  11. We have clean PM and RM. They are also decisive. This government will decide the best considering political and economic factors.
    By the way what happened to Light utility helicopters , one from HAL and KA-226 made by HAL?

  12. Why cant we buy used Mirage-2000 from france, greece or UAE OR Mig-29's from Russia as an interim measure to replace Mig-21/27? This will give us time to produce more Tejas. And moreover these Mirage's and Mig-29 are familiar jets for IAF.

  13. Saas bahu serial makers (ekta kapoor) can learn from ministry of defence...Wat started as a requirement for 126 mirage 2000 aircraft in 2000 AD got stretched for 8 years by which time the MIRAGE 2000 production line ended. Then the MMRCA saga started...lasted for 5 years...Rafale got selected...3 years later that broke down. Now we are back to square one...a single engine high performance fighter. In the interim, we spent $ 2.5 billion to refurbish 51 MIRAGE 2000 which were 25+ years old and $1 billion for missiles.

    And the Tejas...first flight in we are at the fag end of 2016 and still no FOC, despite IOC-1,2 and FOC-1,2,3 etc. Every year brings a new problem for the Tejas-seat height, service issues, no night fighting, weight issues, ballast which needs to be removed etc.

    In the mean time..the IAF is without fighters. Just as a layman...wouldnt we have been better off making the 126 Mirage 2000 and gotten the production line transferred to us 16 years back?

  14. I strongly believe giving winglets to the main wings would improve lift and better the stall and significant improvement in spin with all other modifications in IJT , you try that and won't repent as the trainer would be ready to go.


  15. Mr. Guru, now that the Tejas is superior to the Mirage-2000 (per IAF's pilot), can't the Tejas Mk1 be the MRCA ?

    The last 5-6 years have only witnessed the IAF changing the goalposts, and the IAF nitpicking on minor issues like the Tejas' seat. A UK-based company called Cobham delayed supplying critical parts by nearly 2 years. Even within that time, the IAF could've easily inducted the Tejas with only WVR and the ability to precision bomb. After all, wasn't the Eurofighter inducted in the RAF without any A2A ability initially ?

    If the idiotic IAF would've not shown so much stubbornness and accepted that the Tejas, even in its current avatar is worlds apart from the crash-prone MiG-21s, this state of affairs would not have occurred.

  16. I worked in the F-16 engineering in the 1970s. The article leaves out advantages of F-16 almost entirely. For example, F-16 would bring India instant militay-industrial ties with 25+ existing F-16 users.

    USAF isn't abandoning F-16. F-16 will be in service until at least 2040. The only reasons USAF isn'y buying more F-16s is it already has enough airframes.

    There is a naval version of F-16. I've seen the model. It was to be built by Grumman as prime contractor for the US Navy. LM would still have those plans.

    Saab has is not integrating GaN radar technology into Gripen.

    Like Tejas, Gripen-E's payload is too small, its range too short, to make sense given the distances within India and across China and Pakistan. It is especially questionable for carriers, where its small payload can't be balanced by adding more jets..


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