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The Indian Air Force (IAF) is facing a severe shortage of fighter aircraft, as accident rates rise in its antiquated Mig-21 and Mig-27 fleets, and the Indian-produced Tejas lightweight fighter continues to disappoint.
Since the bitterly contested competition for 126 multirole fighters eventually collapsed, to be replaced with a government-to-government deal with France for 36 Dassault Rafales, India has upped the ante with a new Request for Information (RFI) for anywhere up to 300 single-engine multirole fighters to be built under licence in India.
To say that this is a huge prize for fighter manufacturers would be a significant understatement; since Lockheed Martin’s F-35 is expected to dominate the Western-friendly combat aircraft export market from the end of this decade, other manufacturers are desperately looking for export customers to help them maintain their production lines into the next decade.
However, since the stipulated Indian requirement is for a single-engine fighter, the only likely contenders are Saab’s Gripen E/F or Lockheed Martin’s latest iteration of the venerable F-16 Viper, since the US government is unlikely to permit the required level of technology transfer to allow the state-owned defence company Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to manufacture the F-35 in India.
Manufacturers with twin-engine offerings such as Eurofighter GmbH, Boeing, and Russia’s Mikoyan might submit proposals, but have little chance of success and are already wary of Indian procurement tenders after their experiences with the previous multirole combat aircraft competition. The current RFI is also a blow to HAL, since it is a strong indication that the IAF does not plan to order India’s own indigenously developed lightweight fighter, the Tejas, in anything like the quantities originally envisaged.
The F-16 has been the archetypal multirole lightweight fighter for 30 years, and the most recent Block 60/62 versions developed for the United Arab Emirates are certainly highly capable fighter aircraft, with an impressive range and payload for their size, as well as the APG-80 AESA radar, JHMCS helmet-system and glass cockpit with excellent human–machine interface as standard. However, the manoeuvrability of the aircraft has suffered compared to the original F-16, in spite of uprated engines, and it has questionable survivability against modern air defences and even ‘4.5 generation’ air superiority fighters such as the Typhoon and the Su-35S.
Although Lockheed Martin has offered a Block 70 F-16 for India, which would presumably incorporate the best of all the many improvements that have been made to the type for various customers around the world over the past decade, there are limits to how much a 40-year-old airframe designed as a cheap, lightweight dogfighting aircraft can be developed to keep pace with developments in threat technologies over the next 30 years. However, if what the IAF wants is a highly capable multirole fighter for strike operations and limited air policing and interception duties as soon as possible, then the F-16 Block 70 will probably present a good deal.
The favourite is likely to be the Saab Gripen E/F. The older Gripen C/D can be thought of rather like a spiritual successor to the F-16 design philosophy, designed as an affordable, easy to maintain and operate multirole lightweight fighter for smaller nations such as Sweden, which cannot afford the gold-plated solutions developed by larger nations like the US, France and the UK. While definitive figures for operating costs are almost impossible to derive for fighter aircraft, it is generally accepted that Gripen costs between half and a third as much to operate as larger competitors such as Rafale, Typhoon and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. It can be maintained without specialist tools by conscripts and operated from remote strips of highway supported by a couple of refuelling and rearming vehicles.
The new Gripen E/F maintains its predecessor’s focus on affordability and maintainability, but builds an externally similar airframe around a new and reportedly phenomenally capable electronic warfare suite designed to allow it to hide from enemy sensors using active electronic measures rather than passive ‘stealth’ techniques.
The Gripen E/F also comes with an AESA radar, extremely flexible payload options, including the world-leading Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, and impressive manoeuvrability. In other words, there is more development potential for the Gripen E/F to enable it to survive against future threats than for the F-16, and there is little that the latter offers which the former cannot at least match. Assuming a similar price point, therefore, the Swedish offer looks to be the stronger one from a technical standpoint.
Saab is also offering to help with the Tejas Mk2 if the Gripen is selected for production in India. Given the Tejas Mk1 reportedly suffers from quality control issues, sensor deficiencies and avionics problems, Saab’s track record of excellent sensor and avionics development and producing high- quality products on the limited budget afforded by Sweden’s defence funding suggests that HAL could certainly pick worse partners to help fix their troubled fighter.
There is also the fact that Lockheed Martin recently sold F-16s to India’s arch-rival Pakistan, which may politically hurt its chances of being selected by the IAF.
The F-16 Block 70 promises to be a fine machine for a fine price, but all other factors being equal, the Gripen E/F appears the better bet as India’s next foreign-sourced multirole fighter. If the latter is selected, the licence production deal would be a huge boost to Saab, given the size of India’s requirement and the limited potential domestic order volumes for their innovative aircraft.
Banner image: The Indian Air Force is looking to replace its antiquated Mig-21 fleet. Courtesy of Indian Air Force.