Saab, the Swedish defence and security corporation, issued a statement on social media site X announcing its plan to sell 114 advanced Gripen E fighter aircraft in answer to the Indian Air Force’s upcoming Request For Proposal. The statement says that India’s procurement of Gripen E will offer the country sophisticated air combat capabilities and extraordinary operational preparedness. The statement adds that this will enable India to address potential threats in various areas successfully. (More detailed information on Gripen E can be found here.)
Requests for Information (RFIs) were sent to potential participants of the future 114 MRFA (medium multirole fighter aircraft) aircraft tender in April 2018. This procurement is intended to offset the ongoing reduction in combat-ready squadrons in the Indian Air Force due to the gradual phasing out of aircraft from previous generations in recent years. The Indian Ministry of Defence has long recognised the need for 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft (with 16-18 aircraft per squadron) to ensure the country’s reliable defence against external threats. However, the number of squadrons has not only failed to increase but has continued to decrease, from 35 in 2015 to 31.
The forthcoming tender for MRFA is not the first in India’s modern history. In 2007, the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) programme was initiated to acquire 126 new fighter aircraft, most of which were to be manufactured in India under licence. At that time, six competitors participated in the tender: Russia’s RSK “MiG” and “Rosoboronexport” with the MiG-35, the United States’ Lockheed Martin and Boeing with the F-16V and F/A-18E/F, France’s Dassault with the Rafale, the European consortium Eurofighter with the Typhoon, and Sweden’s Saab with the Gripen E/F. On January 31, 2012, after comparative trials and years of negotiations, the French proposal was declared the victor of the MMRCA bid. The procurement of 126 aircraft, however, was subsequently revoked by the new government. On September 23, 2016, India signed a direct purchase agreement with France for 36 Rafale aircraft. The circumstances and terms of this transaction continue to be the subject of heated debate in India. The MRFA is a rebranded version of the MMRCA proposal for political posturing.
For MRFA, the pool of contenders remains the same as a decade ago, which is why the new competition is sometimes unofficially referred to as MMRCA 2.0. India’s recently adopted procurement procedures will execute the MRFA programme. Foreign Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) or “strategic partners” are required to select an Indian Production Agency (IPA) with which they will establish an aircraft assembly facility in India and transfer the requisite technology. The strategic partner is expected to deliver 18 completed aircraft to India, while the IPA will construct the remaining 96.
Lockheed Martin has rebranded its F-16 offer as the F-21, marketing it as an improved version of the popular F-16 that will serve as a new fighter plane for the IAF. Pakistan’s principal fighter aircraft is the F-16; hence, the F-21’s name change was presumably made to distance the country’s armed forces from the F-16’s bad connotations. If the company is awarded the contract, the F-21 will be produced in India by a joint venture with Tata Advanced Systems.
Saab proposes to establish an independent industrial base capable of designing, developing, producing, upgrading, and maintaining the Gripen system, thus moving beyond the building of subcomponents with Indian companies. In addition to Gripen, this base will provide technological support for indigenous fighter programmes like the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) MK2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
According to a communication issued by SAAB in October 2022, the company intends to involve hundreds of Tier 1, 2, and 3 partners, vendors, and suppliers in the development of a variety of Indo-Swedish systems that can support the Indian Armed Forces and be exported to other nations.
If India chooses Gripen, Saab will produce 96 of the 114 aircraft required by the IAF at the proposed industrial base in India. This would result in several high-tech employment being created in the country.
According to Saabs’s statement, the company is familiar with collaborating with local industries in customer countries. The company has a lengthy history of sharing technology with South Africa and Brazil, collaborating with Embraer, Akaer, and AEL Sistemas. In Gavio Peixoto, Brazil, Gripen fighters are developed at the Gripen Design and Development Network (GDDN). In South Africa, Grintek Defence (SGD) provides avionics, sensor technology, and electronic warfare expertise.
According to Mats Palmberg, Chairman and Managing Director of Saab India, Gripen E can be integrated with Indian-made and foreign missiles. India can perform any upgrade, which may or may not involve foreign systems.
He says Gripen was made easy to repair, adding that everything may be handled on the spot, from staff development to the acquisition of necessary maintenance tools. Mats Palmberg further notes that there will be no need to transport the plane back to Sweden for upgrades or repairs. Gripen E has only been sold in Sweden and Brazil.