SAAB's Sea Gripen constitutes a new option as the INS Vikrant's light fighter. Ajai Shukla reports
Brazil's decision to buy the Swedish JAS-39E/F Gripen (or Gripen NG) has opened a tantalising possibility for India's defence ministry, which is frustrated after 33 months of negotiations with French company, Dassault on the proposed purchase of 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft.
On Monday, Swedish defence giant, Saab, which builds the Gripen, announced Brazil had signed a contract for 36 Gripen NG fighters for $5.475 billion.
Brazil chose the Gripen NG over the Rafale (Dassault, France) and the F/A-18 Super Hornet (Boeing, USA).
Brazil will now ask Saab to develop the Sea Gripen, says defence analyst, INS Jane's. Twenty-four of these "navalised" fighters will equip Brazil's aircraft carrier, Sao Paulo.
IHS Jane's also highlights the Indian Navy's need for the Sea Gripen for two carriers that Cochin Shipyard is building -- the 40,000-tonne INS Vikrant and a larger, yet unnamed, successor referred to as the Future Indigenous Carrier.
So far, the Indian Navy had planned to fly a naval version of the indigenous light combat aircraft -- the Naval Tejas -- from these carriers. However, the Naval Tejas, which the Defence Research & Development Organisation is developing, may not be ready for service by 2018, when the Vikrant will be commissioned.
The Sea Gripen constitutes a new option as the Vikrant's light fighter. The navy already has a medium fighter, the MiG-29K, on order from Russia.
Indian analysts, like Manoj Joshi of Observer Research Foundation, say buying the Sea Gripen would let the DRDO engage Saab as a design partner for the Naval Tejas and Tejas Mark II, both advanced versions of the current Tejas Mark I.
In 2011, then DRDO chief V K Saraswat had approached Saab to collaborate in developing the Tejas Mark II. In 2012, the DRDO and Saab held detailed discussions. In January 2013, Saab was issued a Request for Proposal, which the DRDO examined and discussed. Yet, nothing came of it.
The DRDO's interest in Saab stems from the numerous technical parallels between the Tejas and the Gripen. Both are light fighters in the 14-tonne class.
Whilst developing the Gripen NG, Saab changed the engine to the more powerful General Electric F-414 turbofan, and added more fuel; which is exactly what the DRDO proposes for the LCA Mark II. Fitting the bulkier, heavier F-414 into the Tejas would require re-engineering of the fuselage; a problem that Saab has promised to solve.
"The greatest benefit to the Tejas Mark II could be from the Gripen's superb networking. Aerial combat is no longer about eye-catching aerobatics; it is about data links; networking, and cockpit avionics, which is Saab's strength," says Joshi.
The DRDO was also hoping to learn from Saab's maintenance philosophy, which has made the Gripen the world's most easy-to-maintain fighter. According to independent estimations, the Gripen requires three to five man-hours of maintenance per flight hour. That means, after an hour-long mission, 6-10 technicians require only 30 minutes to put the fighter back in the air.
In contrast, the Rafale is estimated to require 15 maintenance man-hours per flight hour; while the F-35 Lightening II requires 30-35 man-hours.
According to a Jane's study, the operating cost of the Gripen is $4,700 per hour. The Rafale is thrice as expensive, at $15,000 per hour.
"The Tejas Mark I has not been designed with operational availability in mind. It is a maintenance nightmare, with sub-systems inaccessible. The Tejas Mark II will need Saab's help in radically re-engineered these," says a DRDO engineer.
Senior Saab officials say, off the record, they are keen to partner India in developing the Tejas Mark II. They say the Tejas Mark II, built cheaply in large numbers, would eliminate the need for a heavy, costly, highly sophisticated fighter like the Rafale. Saab sees major profit in co-developing the Tejas Mark II.
Brazil's contract for 36 Gripen NGs comes on top of Stockholm's decision to buy 60 of these fighters for the Swedish Air Force.
In 2011, Switzerland too had selected the Gripen over the Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon. However, in an astonishing, nationwide referendum on the proposed $3.5-billion purchase, the Swiss people voted to spend the money instead on education, transport and pensions.
The current version of the Gripen NG, the Gripen D, is currently in operational service with the Swedish, Czech, Hungarian, South African and Royal Thai Air Forces, and also with the UK Empire Test Pilots' School.